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Debate Pits Contrasts in Style

Politics: Simon and Davis, neither known for oratory, face off before TV cameras today.


One candidate follows his political script religiously and glad-hands with robotic efficiency; the other blurts out bromides and exudes gee-whiz enthusiasm.

In a state of almost 35 million people, a place brimming with camera-ready charisma, it comes down to this: The two men running for governor just aren't naturals.

As Gov. Gray Davis and Republican gubernatorial nominee Bill Simon Jr. face off today in a debate sponsored by The Times, voters will get their first sustained look this season at the candidates' personas. With no other face-to-face meetings scheduled between Davis and Simon, the debate may be the last event where voters can examine at length the two major candidates for governor.

"As public speakers and communicators, they are both a little wooden," said Joseph Tuman, professor of political and legal communication at San Francisco State. "If 'Saturday Night Live' was in the position of caricaturing California politicians," they would have a field day, he said.

At the least, today's debate should give voters a sense of where Davis and Simon stand. And while the candidates' lack of polish may strip the event of some of its theater, it also may give voters an easier chance to size up what Simon and Davis stand for.

"It's a more honest race when you have two guys, neither of whom was president of their high school drama club, who are fairly mundane public speakers," said Eli Attie, a former speech writer for Al Gore who now writes for NBC's "The West Wing." "You strip away those levels of performance and artifice, and you really get to focus on the race."

"If you really want a spellbinding, charismatic entertainer," he added, "go to the movies."


Davis certainly has never been accused of being spellbinding.

Take his appearance at an early September labor rally. Hundreds of nurses and janitors had gathered at a Los Angeles union hall to kick off the Democratic governor's fall reelection campaign. Clad in purple T-shirts, the union members whooped and hollered as an array of labor leaders, their faces reddened by the effort, exhorted them to get out the vote. "Si se puede!" the workers chanted, jumping up and down, pumping their fists in the air.

The governor--dressed neatly in a dark blue suit and light blue shirt, his hair perfectly coiffed--carefully raised and lowered his fist mechanically, an even smile plastered on his face.

"Davis, I'm afraid to say, comes across as a bloodless technocrat," said Thomas Hollihan, an associate dean at USC's Annenberg School for Communication. "There's not a lot of warmth there. Even when he tries to be passionate, his [mannerisms] seem to undercut what he's saying."

At every appearance, the governor studiously follows his talking points, thanking the requisite elected officials and supporters. He never fails to smile for the camera. But rarely does Davis ad-lib or offer personal details about his life.

During a speech to the AARP in San Diego last month, press secretary Steve Maviglio was startled when Davis departed from his prepared remarks and told a story about his mother-in-law's struggle with Alzheimer's.

It was a rare moment of openness. For the most part, when the governor does talk about his life, the anecdotes read like marketable snapshots: his years in Vietnam, his 1,000-square-foot West Hollywood condominium, the scolding he got from a flight attendant--his future wife--for delaying a plane.

"I married a Teamster," he tells union audiences with pride.

When he is challenged, however, Davis' careful delivery can give way to sharp flashes of anger.

Last month, as Simon repeatedly accused Davis of selling state policy to his campaign donors, the governor lost patience.

"Bill Simon has no business lecturing me," a furious Davis said during a news conference in Oakland, jabbing his finger just inches from a reporter's chest.

But the governor does not often have public outbursts. Everything about Davis, down to his daily routine, speaks to his discipline: the perennial French blue dress shirt, the turkey sandwich on wheat (sans mayo) and steamed broccoli he has for lunch every day.

And then there is "the Hair." Davis' seemingly immutable cap of gray hair is so much a part of his image that longtime state politicos claim that no one has ever seen a strand out of place. Republicans say voters in focus groups bring up the governor's perfectly combed hair as an example of how overly contained Davis appears.

"You get the impression you could touch the hair and it would hurt your hand," said Tuman of San Francisco State.

The governor is not unaware of his bland image, occasionally poking fun at his predictable mannerisms and staid style.

When Gore would visit California, Davis used to introduce the famously stiff vice president as his "charisma coach."

"I was too dull and boring to be governor, but I worked hard," Davis told a Latino voting organization in July. "And I went on Jay Leno, not once, but twice."

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