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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

A President Davis One Day? He Won't Speculate, but . . .

August 17, 2000|GEORGE SKELTON

Certainly this is not the moment to be speculating about Al Gore's California campaign chairman one day seizing the Democratic presidential nomination himself. Not with Gore delivering his acceptance speech tonight in the hometown of the chairman, Gov. Gray Davis. That kind of speculation might make a governor cringe.

But, what the heck, less relevant stuff is being written about.

"I'm not going down that road," Davis said emphatically, sitting in the back of his black sedan while being whisked to Staples Center by police escort.

"I know most politicians have all these things schemed up in their minds. My life's dream has come true. I wanted to be governor. I am governor. I'm doing the best job I can. I want to enjoy the moment. I am enjoying it. I'm not going to look down the road."

He'd have to be abnormal, however, not to snatch a glimpse now and then. Because, as Washington-based Democratic pollster Geoff Garin notes: "Next time there's not a Democrat in the White House, Gray Davis will be a front-runner for the presidential nomination. [House Minority Leader Richard] Gephardt [of Missouri] and Davis will be the top tier."

The reason: California's huge mass of convention delegates and electoral votes--fully one-fifth the number needed to be nominated and elected. By the next presidential election, those numbers will be even higher.

California now has an early primary. "We're not moving that puppy," the governor vows. "It has nothing to do with me. After years of being nothing but a [campaign] funding source, Californians finally got to participate in the selection of a nominee. I'm not about to send us to the back of the bus again. . . .

"And don't put that in the context of me running for president. That's b.s."

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The buzz is that Davis is positioning himself to run. He denies it. But many political pros think he is. And he'd be derelict not to.

He's earning IOUs by raising campaign money for other Democratic governors--

$750,000 at least, plus an estimated $50,000 last Friday night for Gov. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, host of the nation's first presidential primary.

In January, he'll become chairman of the Democratic Governors Assn.

He recently hired as his press secretary Steve Maviglio, a former New Hampshire legislator who never had lived in California. "I had no idea he was from New Hampshire," Davis says. "Well, I was aware during the interview. But he'd been working in Washington [as a House aide] for a long time."

The governor is building a small donor base--a reliable group willing to give relatively small amounts. This is vital in a presidential race, where the contribution limit is $1,000. By contrast, the sky's the limit in California state campaigns.

Davis is a Clinton centrist, if not a Clinton charmer.

He's an education reformer, but cautious with money. Strong on criminal punishment; adamant for the death penalty. Favors gun control, but thinks California--way ahead of the feds--has gone far enough for now. He's for abortion rights. He's also pro-environment, but a Democrat business likes--and contributes to heavily.

Critics--especially liberals--complain he needs to be bolder. But his performance ratings have been consistently high: 51% positive, 12% negative in the latest state survey by nonpartisan pollster Mark Baldassare.

It's looking as if he almost could be reelected by acclamation in 2002. As of June 30, he already had raised an astounding $21.3 million. No Republican's gearing up to challenge him. And nobody can think of a Republican who should.

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Scenario No. 1 is that Gore loses.

Having learned from the missteps of his predecessor, Republican Pete Wilson, Davis will refuse to publicly commit himself to serving a full second term. He will try to make sure Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante is reelected so he'll have a Democratic backup.

But no sitting California governor ever has been nominated for president. Wilson and Jerry Brown--Davis' old boss--both tried and were humiliated.

Scenario No. 2 is that Gore wins and Davis must wait for eight years.

He probably should anyway. He'd avoid challenging an incumbent.

In or out of office, he's a fund-raising fool; it's practically a hobby.

He'll be 65, but undoubtedly still energetic and look the same--slim, fit, a full head of gray hair.

He'd have more time to build a solid record and a compelling message. Also to polish that speech delivery, which is improving. It's focused, if not quite presidential.

Davis isn't yet ready for prime time. But he doesn't need to be for another election or two.

Remember: Hardly any insider thought he'd be elected governor either.

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