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Calm at the Eye of the Storm

Amid growing list of challengers and media frenzy, Davis keeps focus on strategy, insiders say.

August 09, 2003|Gregg Jones | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Gray Davis sat in his campaign office in West Los Angeles, reading scribbled updates from aides and phoning supporters.

A few hours earlier, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the San Francisco Democrat, had ruled out a run in the recall election, inspiring enormous relief in the Davis camp. Then, as rumors circulated that a pair of Democrats were poised to put their names on the Oct. 7 special election ballot, a political bombshell struck: Arnold Schwarzenegger was launching a Republican candidacy.

"He was surprised, but he's a seasoned enough professional that he just doesn't ride the roller coaster on these things," said Davis campaign manager Larry Grisolano, one of those with the governor at the Pico Boulevard office on Wednesday evening.

"In politics, you learn to expect unusual things to come your way, and he rolls with them."

After a dizzying week, the 60-year-old Davis confronts an uphill struggle that seems to rival, if not surpass, his improbable 1998 feat when he came from last place to win the Democratic nomination for governor and then the election.

By all accounts in the Davis camp, the governor has taken the surprising news of Schwarzenegger's entry into the race, and the less surprising Democratic candidacies of Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi, in typical Davis style: calm, dispassionate, disciplined and focused on what he needs to do to defeat the recall effort.

A few weeks ago, as the recall campaign gained momentum and talks over a state budget remained deadlocked, "he was a little down," said David Doak, a longtime Davis campaign advisor. "He's pretty steady, but you could tell."

Now, though, "I think his mood is better since he has sort of confronted this thing and said, 'Let's go get 'em,' " Doak added. "This guy is not a quitter. He may not always look it or act like he's tough, but internally he's tough."

In a conversation with at least one aide, Davis told a joke that drew comparisons of his seemingly hopeless political plight with that of Democratic President Harry Truman, whose defeat was widely -- and erroneously -- predicted heading into the 1948 election against Republican Thomas Dewey.

In the two days since the Schwarzenegger news broke, Davis has held political discussions by telephone with former President Clinton. Recently, the two have been talking three or four times a week, aides said. They met for about 40 minutes in Chicago on Monday, where Davis sought and received commitments of financial and logistical support from the AFL-CIO.

Schwarzenegger's bombshell and Bustamante's decision to get in the race whipped the news media into a frenzy on Wednesday. But the response was more measured inside the suites of the Davis headquarters, aides said.

In white shirt and tie, Davis spent several hours cloistered in his office there, calling state senators, advisors and supporters and meeting with Grisolano and others. Davis tried but failed to reach Senate President Pro Tem John L. Burton (D-San Francisco), a frequent Davis critic.

Art Pulaski, leader of the California Labor Federation, talked briefly with Davis and found him as calm "as he always is."

"He was like, OK, new reality," said Steve Smith, who is directing the Davis campaign.

While Davis was phoning around the state, Smith and other campaign officials were calling and fielding calls from supporters in the labor movement, environmental groups, women's organizations and other groups.

Occasionally, Smith and others would slip Davis notes, letting him know the latest news and rumors they were hearing about other Democrats getting in the race, he said.

"At one point we were all using our cell phones because the incoming calls were just burying our phone system," Smith said.

Davis left sometime after 9 p.m. His campaign staff worked the phones, plotted strategy and prepared talking points for Thursday media appearances by supporters until around midnight, said Peter Ragone, communications director for the Davis campaign.

Before leaving the office, Ragone -- who handled press relations during Andrew Cuomo's failed gubernatorial campaign in New York and Al Gore's Florida recount effort -- called his wife in San Francisco and summed up the day.

"I've had a lot of extraordinary days in politics. This one might have been the most extraordinary of all," he recalled saying.

While the media frenzy continued in Los Angeles, Davis aides met in the early evening with about 50 administration officials, including resources secretary Mary Nichols and appointments secretary Michael Yamaki, at the California Nurses Assn. offices in Sacramento to bolster morale and answer questions.

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