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Davis Plays Up Devotion to Job in Bid to Save It

August 13, 2003|Gregg Jones and Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writers

In his five successful campaigns for statewide office, Gov. Gray Davis relied on a simple strategy: He battered his opponents with a barrage of negative ads.

Now, with Davis facing an unprecedented Oct. 7 special election to recall him, prominent Democrats have persuaded him to try a less confrontational tack: Forgo the negativity and remind Californians as frequently as possible who is still governor.

On Saturday in Santa Monica, Davis signed legislation to ban toxic flame retardants. On Monday, he endorsed an antidiscrimination measure with rabbis in West Los Angeles. Today, he will support abortion-related legislation with women's rights activists in San Francisco. Also today, the administration is scheduled to announce the state's first new gambling agreement with an Indian tribe.

In a daily stream of public appearances -- usually in urban centers such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, on topics such as the environment that Davis considers crucial to loyal Democratic voters -- the governor has sought to project the image of a man consumed with the work of running the nation's biggest state.

"My focus is to do my job," Davis said this week in an appearance at the Museum of Tolerance in West Los Angeles, using a line that has become a mantra. "A lot of people want to be governor. I am privileged to be governor."

By repeatedly portraying himself in the role of diligent chief executive, methodically attending to the problems of California as the unruly recall campaign swirls around him, Davis is taking a page from the playbook of former President Bill Clinton. In fact, Davis aides said, it was Clinton who advised Davis to embrace the strategy, which Clinton used in his own time of crisis when he faced impeachment during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Clinton and Davis speak by telephone three or four times a week, with the former president freely offering advice and encouragement, and the two men met for about 40 minutes last week in Chicago. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) offered Davis similar counsel, the aides said.

For Davis, however, the Clinton comparisons may end there. Unlike Clinton, who was popular with voters and, according to polls at the time, had the support of most Americans as he fought his impeachment, Davis has approval ratings at slightly above 20%.

Nonetheless, Davis advisors are strongly pursuing the "business as usual" strategy. They argue that the governor can turn his poll numbers around if he shows he is working on the problems voters have blamed him for, while emphasizing the popular causes and programs he championed during better financial times.

They are banking on the public growing tired of the recall fray, and ultimately looking to a Davis seemingly hard at work as the responsible choice, even if they continue to dislike him. Davis aides also hope that images of a hard-working governor could help counteract another negative perception -- that he pays more attention to raising money than running California.

"People are upset in this state, and the governor understands that," said Peter Ragone, communications director of the Davis campaign. "While other people are aggressively playing politics, the governor is aggressively governing."

Aides say the opportunity to get out and talk about his policy record has energized Davis, a development also noted by more impartial analysts.

At the Santa Monica ceremony Saturday on toxic flame retardants, the notoriously stiff Davis seemed unusually relaxed. When a crying child interrupted his prepared remarks, he improvised smoothly.

Well aware that the recall was the pressing news of the day -- and the paramount interest of the throng of reporters and television cameras -- Davis won laughs when he began a news conference by saying with a wry grin, "Let's first deal with this subject and then we'll deal with any other subjects you might have on your mind." Later, asked about being blamed for the state's financial difficulties and resulting budget cuts, he quipped: "My critics blame me for a rainy day."

"I would characterize what the governor is doing as being the governor aggressively," said Davis campaign director Steve Smith, "meaning that he's not going to be sitting back in sort of a 'rose garden' strategy but in fact being the governor and getting out there, signing bills in a very public fashion and drawing attention to issues that are important to him."

Yet even Davis soberly acknowledges that he faces an uphill fight to save his job. And his strategy raises the question: Can a governor blamed by many Californians for all that has gone wrong in the state defeat the recall by simply doing his job over the next two months?

"What got Davis in this hole was the perception that for the last several years he had priorities other than governing," said Republican consultant Dan Schnur, alluding to Davis' prodigious fund-raising. Schnur is advising businessman Peter Ueberroth in his campaign to replace Davis.

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