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Just When Davis Thought It Couldn't Get Worse, It Did

August 07, 2003|Peter Nicholas | Times Staff Writer

For Gov. Gray Davis, who has endured budget crises, sinking approval ratings and a fast-moving recall drive, Wednesday morning's announcement that Sen. Dianne Feinstein would not run against him offered something rare: good news.

But the celebration was brief. By day's end, a multimillionaire actor known simply as "Arnold" had uncorked a surprise. He was running.

And within hours, the fragile Democratic consensus behind Davis had begun to crumble as Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante announced he would enter the race and Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi, said he was considering doing so, as well.

Davis now faces a two-front battle: a well-financed, media-savvy Republican on one flank, at least one prominent Democrat on the other.

Analysts differ on the implications, but the broad outlines are clear: Davis' path to electoral survival is now vastly more complicated.

Until now, Davis' campaign message has been simple -- the recall, he and his aides have repeated, is a Republican plot to wrest control of the Statehouse.

But as credible members of the state's Democratic establishment jump into the race, along with a moderate Republican, that message becomes a harder sell.

And in Arnold Schwarzenegger, Davis faces a charismatic movie star who is prepared to spend "whatever it takes" to win and likely to benefit from large amounts of free publicity.

"The danger for Davis is much more dramatic now than it was before," said Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

"He's not running against a candidate, he's running against a phenomenon," Pitney said.

"It's a bad day for Davis," said Dan Schnur, a Republican consultant. "It's a worse day for California Democrats."

The day had begun on a hopeful note for Davis. Feinstein ended persistent speculation that she would join the recall race with a statement that she was staying out. That meant Davis had succeeded in keeping the ballot clear of the Democratic politician who consistently ranks highest in polls -- one with name recognition to match his own.

Feinstein's decision "kept the lid open on Gray Davis' coffin," Schnur said.

But the announcements by Bustamante and Garamendi reversed whatever momentum the Feinstein decision had given Davis.

A race by a Democrat would run counter to the party's argument that Republicans are seeking to steal the governor's office, said Willie Pelote, political director for the American Federation of State and Municipal Employees in California, which has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Davis.

Pelote said Bustamante called him Wednesday evening to tell him he was running and to solicit his support.

"I don't like it," Pelote said, "I told him it was a bad choice for him to make."

But clearly, California Democratic leaders are growing restive, fearing that if they defer to Davis and stay out, they will have mortgaged the party's future to a highly unpopular governor. With the line against Democrats entering the race now crossed, others may follow.

A top aide to the California congressional delegation confirmed that about 12 Democratic members held a conference call Wednesday to discuss the possibility of a Democrat entering the gubernatorial race.

"It doesn't look good for the governor," the aide said.

Schwarzenegger's entry, meanwhile, may prove double-edged. He's made millions through his movies and he says he's prepared to tap that fortune. As a Republican who is at least perceived to be a moderate -- his stands on many issues remain unknown -- he could draw votes from the same centrist group of voters Davis courts.

Davis' core strategy is likely to remain the same, regardless of Schwarzenegger's entrance into the race, said Phil Trounstine, the governor's former communications director.

"The critical question is still, do people want to recall the governor at all," Trounstine said. "It complicates the situation a bit because Arnold is not a right-wing conservative, but there's still the idea of negating a lawful election."

At least some Davis advisors believe they can turn Schwarzenegger's Hollywood celebrity against him.

Schwarzenegger instantly transforms the recall into a pop cultural event in its own right. People who never cared to vote could be lured to the polls by "the Terminator" -- either for him or against him.

Schwarzenegger played on his celebrity during his announcement yesterday, making repeated references to signature lines from his movies.

The nation's message to politicians, he said on the "Tonight Show With Jay Leno," is, "Do your job for the people and do it well, otherwise you are hasta la vista, baby."

Schwarzenegger meets few people's definition of a policy wonk. He is a former body builder who built his name by posing in bikini briefs. Davis will attempt to portray his candidacy as proof that the recall has become a sideshow.

"All the polling that I've seen and the focus groups I've been privy to, people are derisive and kind of like joking, 'the Terminator running, you've got to be kidding,' " said state Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres. "I think it's one thing to see a movie or to see a bodybuilding exhibition, but to have this guy as your governor -- I think people are going to think more than twice about it."

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