SACRAMENTO — Labor unions, environmental groups and senior Democratic leaders have grown increasingly concerned about Gov. Gray Davis' chances of keeping his job and are intensifying discussions over whether to endorse Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante as a backup plan for keeping the governor's office in friendly hands.
For weeks, Davis and labor leaders have urged Democrats to focus their efforts on persuading people to vote against the recall and to ignore the second part of the ballot, which will feature 135 candidates for governor, including Bustamante.
If Davis gets more than 50% of the vote on the recall, which is a yes-or-no vote, then the second part of the ballot -- the election for a successor -- has no effect. If he loses on the recall, then whoever gets the most votes among the potential successors would become governor as soon as the election results are certified.
"Right now, we're at the stage of encouraging our members to vote no on the recall," said Bill Allayaud, political director for the Sierra Club, which has 200,000 members in California. But, he added, "the Sierra Club is going to consider endorsing other candidates. It's hedging your bets, really. If this recall is going to go through, the Sierra Club has an opinion on who would be best for the environment."
Similarly, the board of directors of the California Teachers Assn. has scheduled a special meeting next week to discuss recall strategy, including the question of whether to endorse an alternative to Davis, said Barbara Kerr, president of the union. A special committee will present various options to the board.
"I don't know what we're going to do," Kerr said.
And the California Labor Federation, the umbrella group for AFL-CIO unions in California, will discuss the possibility of endorsing Bustamante at its convention in Manhattan Beach on Aug. 26. Davis has asked unions to contribute $10 million to his campaign against the recall, and the federation and member unions have pledged financial and logistical assistance.
In a conference call with reporters Thursday afternoon, Art Pulaski, leader of the California Labor Federation, and other key union leaders sought to dispel perceptions of eroding support for Davis.
"All California unions are together in the message that says we are vigorously opposing this recall," Pulaski said. "That is the sole position that we have in relation to the entire recall question, including the question of alternate candidates. We are 'no' on recall and have no support for any alternate candidates."
Nevertheless, the current positions mark a distinct shift over the last 10 days. Last week, leaders of labor unions and other groups that generally support Democrats had threatened to retaliate against any Democrat who undercut Davis by putting his or her name on the successor ballot.
When that strategy failed to keep Bustamante from going ahead, Davis' supporters quietly shelved any talk of retaliation, but continued to say they would not support alternative candidates.
Now that strategy, too, seems to be giving way.
The shift comes as public opinion polls continue to show Davis trailing and as senior Democrats are more openly expressing concerns about his prospects.
"His only hope is for the other candidates to implode," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. "It could change, but I think most of the change will occur despite whatever he does."
Bustamante so far has emphasized his support for a vote against the recall while offering himself as an alternative on the ballot in case Davis loses. But if Davis doesn't show signs of gaining ground, Bustamante at some point may have to "break away from Davis and say vote for me," Yaroslavsky said.
The broadening discussions are an ominous development for Davis, political analysts said.
"The governor's in a very precarious position right now," said Bruce Cain, a political scientist at UC Berkeley.
"If the money and resources flow to the second part of the ballot, Gray's problems become self-fulfilling, because if people don't believe he can win, then they're going to pull their resources out."
"Rhetorically, it's a disaster for the governor," said Barbara O'Connor, who heads the Institute for the Study of Politics and the Media at Cal State Sacramento.
"It's saying that they think there's a doubt he can win. That's a major shift."
The discussions reflect the fact that Davis and his supporters have potentially divergent goals. Davis is fighting to save his job; Democratic constituencies are intent on keeping a Democrat in the governor's office.
"Politics is a cruel business," said Cain. "At some point the question is, does the Democratic Party stand a better chance of getting Cruz [Bustamante] to 42% or 43% of the vote, because that's probably what it will take to win, or to get Gray Davis to 51% of the vote. The logical calculus says it may be easier to get Cruz elected than to get Gray to beat the recall."
Davis' aides continue to insist that the governor can prevail.