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DECISION 2000 / CALIFORNIA | Capitol Journal

Why 2004 Might Not Be Davis' Year, Even Now

November 09, 2000|GEORGE SKELTON

Early in the evening Tuesday, just after the networks had prematurely awarded Florida to Al Gore, Gov. Gray Davis sat in his downtown L.A. hotel suite and expressed relief.

Relief because this meant that Gore--he and most everyone thought--was going to be elected president. And aside from all the power and perks associated with a fellow Democrat's occupying the White House, it relieved a lot of personal pressure. Or so it seemed.

Now, he would not even have to think about whether to seize the moment in 2004 and run for president as a sitting California governor--assuming, as virtually everybody does, that Davis is reelected in 2002. Nor would he be pestered about it by reporters.

"Absolutely, it makes my life a lot simpler," he said, eyes glued on the TV. "My goal has always been to be governor and I want to do the best job possible."

This stated delight, of course, contrasts sharply with the common perception of politicos. As one longtime Davis ally quipped later downstairs at the Democratic victory party, when suddenly George W. Bush looked like the winner: "I'm sure Gray went immediately into the privacy of his bedroom and danced a little jig."

After the networks performed their embarrassing double flip-flop and returned the election to the province of actual election officials, Davis refused to answer hypothetical questions about the possibility of a Bush victory.

On Wednesday, the governor told reporters he was looking forward to chairing Gore's 2004 reelection campaign in California.

And by the way, he added, that Electoral College needs to be junked. "If somebody gets the most votes in America, they should be president of the United States. This change is inevitable."

*

Things really could not be better for Davis. Tally it up:

* The governor put his prestige on the line in heading up the Proposition 39 campaign and won narrowly. This historic initiative scraps a 19th century relic that required a two-thirds vote for local school bond issues. His political team masterminded the victory.

* Davis also helped bury Proposition 38, the school voucher initiative, with an early TV ad that may have cost him some popularity among Republicans.

* Gore wound up carrying the state by a 13-point margin. As chairman of his California campaign, the governor can claim some bragging rights.

But Garry South, Davis' chief political strategist, still was fuming at Gore's national campaign Wednesday for trying to distance the vice president from President Clinton. "By this pathological paranoia about being connected to Clinton, they gave up everything positive that had been done the last eight years," South complained.

* Democrats increased their strength in both houses of the Legislature. That could make it easier--and harder--for Davis to govern: Easier to pass consensus Democratic programs. Harder because on many major issues--like health care--there is no consensus. The centrist governor will feel a need to keep a tight rein on liberal legislators, careful that they don't drag the party too far out in front of the voters.

To fully appreciate Davis' good fortune, one has only to recall Pete Wilson's plight at this juncture of his governorship. Wilson's candidate--President George Bush--had just been trounced in California. Voters had rejected the Republican governor's prized welfare reform initiative. And Democrats gained strength in the Assembly.

But politics is cyclical. There's potential trouble down the road for Davis. Electricity deregulation is a land mine. Gasoline prices keep rising. And experts worry that the crime rate is about to climb again.

*

So this governor--any California governor--needs to focus on his job and not daydream about the Oval Office. Ask Wilson or Davis' old boss, Jerry Brown, who trashed their careers with humiliating White House quests.

That's the minority view among politicos, however. The majority view is that if Bush wins, Davis should gear up for 2004.

Get known nationally. He'll be chairman of the Democratic Governors Assn. next year; that's a platform. Look for an issue. (HMO reform?) Build a small donor base. It's important to run while in office to attract money.

Every California governor is an automatic A-list contender with that massive bloc of electoral votes. Right.

Except that no sitting California governor ever has won a presidential nomination. This state requires a full-time CEO. To seriously compete, a governor must start running the day after his second inauguration. And that commute to New Hampshire is a political killer. Voters resent it.

There might be an opening in 2008 when Davis is 65 and out of office.

But Davis' initial reaction Tuesday night about 2004 was the wise one: Don't even think about it.

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