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CONVENTION 2000 / THE DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION

Davis Plays Perfect Host, Complete With Party Favors

Although he downplays his DNC role, the California governor methodically makes the rounds and brings in the cash. Some speculate that it's great practice for his own presidential run.

August 17, 2000|DAN MORAIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Unlike Hillary Rodham Clinton, he's making no appearances on Jay Leno's show. The stir Gov. Gray Davis creates when he walks onto the convention floor is nothing compared to the heads that turn when Warren Beatty and Annette Bening show up.

On Wednesday, Davis delivered his second speech to the convention, a four-minute talk heralding the candidacy of Al Gore. The networks ignored both appearances.

But Davis is not a politician to be underestimated. He goes about his political work one methodical step after the next. Right now he's playing the part of perfect host. He was first on the tarmac to greet Gore when he arrived in Burbank on Wednesday, and has been available to extol Gore's candidacy whenever the cameras are on, as they've been many times this week.

"I am a bit player in this drama," Davis told reporters. "This week belongs to Al Gore and Joe Lieberman. . . . Our job is to leave the stage to the main players."

But in fact his role is significant.

Throughout the week, Davis has been introducing Democratic politicians to his stable of donors and Hollywood contacts. He has attended private dinners with billionaires, met with national media heavyweights and tossed the biggest bash of the week at Paramount Studios, a lavish $1.4-million affair for 10,000 delegates and others who one day may be his new best friends.

Davis, 57, has never said he plans to run for president. But he appears to be pursuing a strategy followed by smart politicians on the rise: First help someone else succeed. Davis has devoted his help to Gore in California.

"The best thing he can do is get Al Gore and Joe Lieberman elected," said Garry South, Davis' chief strategist, who is helping Gore campaign in California. "Anything else comes after that."

Along the way, Davis is renewing acquaintances and making new ones--people like Vinod Gupta, founder of a database company based in Omaha, Neb., who sat next to Davis at a lunch held for Democratic governors and former President Carter earlier in the week.

"I loved it when he said businesses have to make money," said Gupta, who has donated $1.2 million to various Democratic causes this year. "He is very pro-business. . . . I think he has got a great future."

Every politico in town assumes that Davis, riding high in the polls and sitting on a gargantuan $21.3-million campaign account, is in the pool of potential presidential candidates, either in 2004 if Gore should stumble, or in 2008.

"Unlimited," Carter said of Davis' future.

"Longer term," noted AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, "he has a potential for national office. We will certainly continue to support him."

As always, Davis' ability to raise money is the key to his success. In 2001, when he becomes chairman of the Democratic Governors Assn., the organization expects to raise $7 million to help elect more Democrats to the top state offices, said Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening. He raised $750,000 for the group this year, plus another $50,000 for New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen last week at the Brentwood home of real estate developer and attorney Doug Ring.

Raising such sums "obviously is a lot easier in California," Shaheen said in an interview.

Davis has made some missteps this week, albeit minor ones. He skipped scheduled breakfast stops hosted by New York and Florida delegations. He's not a morning person, an aide notes. Besides, he has been up late each night, either at parties he has hosted or at dinners given in his honor.

Billionaire Ron Burkle, one of Davis' six-figure donors, hosted one at his Green Acres estate in Beverly Hills on Tuesday night. Haim Saban, head of the Fox Children's Network and another six-figure donor to Davis, was to host a dinner later Wednesday.

He remains a less-than-riveting jawsmith. He sometimes stumbles over names. Oddly, he quoted Barry Goldwater's use of the term "son of a bitch," in a speech to women at a fund-raiser for EMILY's List, a group that finances Democratic women candidates who support abortion rights.

Still, he has impressed many. "He's terrific," former Texas Gov. Ann Richards said after the $500,000 EMILY's List lunch at the Beverly Wilshire. "Things he said made you feel good about him, and, of course, he is right on the issues. I think he has got a big future, whatever he wants to do."

Davis is using his Hollywood contacts to add glitz to his appearances. At a Monday lunch for governors at Union Station, Davis introduced President Carter and "Acting President" Martin Sheen, a reference to Sheen's role in the TV program "The West Wing."

At a lunch on Wednesday, Davis and his chief of staff, Lynn Schenk, feted chiefs of staff at Warner Bros., where guests toured the "West Wing" set.

The big bash was Monday night on Paramount's back lot. While Davis dined in a VIP room, there were buffet tables with Chinese and Mexican food, hamburgers and onion rings and open bars.

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