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Davis' Brash Tactician Grabs National Notice

March 06, 2002|ROBIN FIELDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Garry South leans back in his oversized leather desk chair, one lanky arm folded behind his head, his lips curling in satisfaction.

Each day brings him more claps on the shoulder, handshakes and breathless testaments to his brilliance as California's political chess master of the moment.

For the last three months, he has set the terms of the Republican primary for governor, even though his candidate, Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, isn't even in it.

They have all played his game.

South's bold decision to have Davis spend $10 million targeting Richard Riordan refocused the primary on issues like abortion, guns and conservative credentials. Experts said the campaign was particularly effective because it goaded Riordan--South's longtime nemesis--into repeatedly stressing his pro-choice views while trying to attract conservative Republican votes.

South even outmaneuvered the White House, which had encouraged Riordan to run, forcing the administration into a last-minute scramble to court businessman Bill Simon Jr., who cemented a solid victory over Riordan on Tuesday.

"It was a hall-of-fame move," UC Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain said about South's strategy. "Prior to 1998, even, [South] was barely a blip on the radar screen. It has really been a meteoric rise."

In less than 10 years, South has rocketed from obscurity to stardom among the elite of political strategists in California and, thus, in the nation.

He's a man who revels in the limelight. About the most fun he's had lately, South confesses, was paying a surprise visit to an event for Riordan at the former mayor's downtown Los Angeles restaurant, the Original Pantry. With South, 50, holding court out front, Riordan, 71, was forced to slip in through the back door.

"Don't eat the food," South said before sauntering away, alluding to the eatery's one-time shutdown for health-code violations.

But the same South who relished the confrontation spends his spare time designing liturgical vestments. His latest work, an altar frontal made from gold velvet, with gold and red brocade, gold crosses and chalices, should be ready in time for Easter.

Shoot-From-the Hip Alter Ego to Davis

Nothing, however, matches his passion for politics.

"I've often asked myself, 'Could I run a shoe store? Could I manage a Dairy Queen?' " South said. "I never found anything as interesting to me as politics. I never found anything I was as good at as politics."

With his ruddy, barroom brawler's face and pale surgeon's hands, South serves as the ultra-deliberate Davis' shoot-from-the-lip alter ego and trusted confidant.

Davis hired South to oversee his 1994 campaign for lieutenant governor and kept him on to be the architect of his 1998 run for governor.

Their relationship had an unusual candor from the start. South was not intimidated by Davis, known for being temperamental and demanding in private. Even now, South speaks to the governor in the same utterly certain voice he uses with everyone, his questions never seeming to end in question marks.

"Garry is very honest and direct with Gray," said Bill Carrick, a political consultant who observed them while helping the Davis campaign stage mock debates in 1998. "He'll say, 'That's totally wrong.' "

The relationship deepened during the arduous '98 gubernatorial campaign, in which Davis at one point trailed not only Republican Dan Lungren, but also two Democrats, millionaire newcomer Al Checchi and Rep. Jane Harman.

South stuck by Davis through waves of staff defections and managed to shore up the candidate's fragile backing from unions and financiers. The long hours and skipped meals eventually put South in the hospital with bleeding ulcers.

"There's something in the relationship that I don't understand, but Garry is loyal to Gray Davis in a way few people are," said Phil Trounstine, Davis' former communications director who is now a consultant. "It's almost like brothers."

After Davis won the 1998 race, South says he was asked to serve as the administration's chief of staff. Instead, he opted to remain outside government, able to sling the sort of political invective that would compromise a state official's dignity.

"I'm sure the governor has rolled his eyes plenty when he's picked up the paper, but Garry can say things the governor can't," Davis spokesman Steve Maviglio said. "He's got to be out there stirring the soup."

South's tie to Davis helped him land a lucrative--he won't say exactly how lucrative--consulting gig with public relations giant Burston-Marstellar from mid-1999 to mid-2001. He says he could have made more money if he had agreed to lobby for individual clients rather than providing the firm with more general advice on California issues.

"I've done well, but I could've cleaned up," he said. "I could have retired."

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