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The State | NEWS ANALYSIS / THE RECALL CAMPAIGN

Winning Back Democrats' Flagging Loyalty Is Key for Davis

August 20, 2003|Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writer

While offering a mea culpa to all Californians, Gov. Gray Davis' apologetic and combative speech Tuesday was aimed above all at persuading fellow Democrats that they are better off keeping him in power than ousting him in the upcoming recall election.

For weeks, shoring up his faltering Democratic base has been Davis' key endeavor. This time, he tried to do it not just by admitting mistakes, but also by pointedly casting the recall as part of a national effort by Republicans to "steal elections."

Besides linking his difficulties to the Florida presidential election debacle of 2000, he also hammered on the issues -- environment, education, racial unity -- that have galvanized his party's base, particularly blacks, Latinos and union members.

"What he's trying to do is have the Democratic wagons rally around him, especially African Americans," said GOP strategist Arnold Steinberg.

Democratic constituency groups by and large have been deeply displeased with Davis' job performance, polls have found. That unease among Democrats is a key reason that a majority of California voters support his ouster. In the latest Field Poll, roughly a quarter of likely Democratic voters supported the recall, an ominous sign for Davis, whose overall ratings make him one of California's least popular governors.

With Republicans overwhelmingly in favor of his removal in the Oct. 7 election, Davis has less than seven weeks to win back those wayward Democrats. His own advisors acknowledge he will be kicked out of office if he fails in that one narrow task.

"We've got to get Democrats and left-leaning independents back," said one Davis strategist, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "I don't think there's any doubt about that."

Davis, though, has had strained ties with core Democratic constituencies. During his first term, organized labor applauded his approval of mandatory overtime, family-leave benefits and other measures, but the centrist governor offended the California Teachers Assn. and other unions by resisting other parts of their agenda.

Davis lost the endorsement of many Latino leaders during his reelection campaign, largely over his refusal to sign legislation that would grant driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. With the recall election drawing near, Davis has pledged to approve the measure this summer.

He also has had a rocky relationship with Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, which contributed to Bustamante's decision to break his pledge not to run as a candidate to replace Davis.

With African Americans, Davis "got off to a rocky start" by failing to name enough blacks to state judgeships and jobs, and by refusing to approve mandatory police tracking by race of people stopped on roadsides, said Alice Huffman, president of the California NAACP.

"We started to rattle his cage a little bit, and he wised up by the end of his term" by stepping up the pace of minority appointments, she said.

The contrition speech that Davis delivered Tuesday is a staple for politicians in trouble. In a famous act of damage control in 1952, Richard Nixon, then the running mate of GOP presidential candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower, told Americans in his "Checkers" speech that "it was wrong, just not illegal" for him to take $18,000 from supporters to cover political expenses.

In 1969, New York City Mayor John V. Lindsay won reelection after admitting he had made his share of mistakes during a first term marred by strikes, scandals and other embarrassments. In 1998, Clinton, now a Davis confidant in the recall campaign, told Americans that his affair with White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky marked "a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure." Despite the scandal, he managed to sustain his popularity, especially among the very rank-and-file Democrats Davis needs to win back.

It is unclear, at least at this early stage, whether Davis will similarly succeed.

Davis' framing of the recall as part of a GOP plot to steal elections could help build support among minority voters, many of whom believe blacks were disenfranchised in the Florida 2000 election, Huffman said.

They also may respond to Davis' argument Tuesday that Republicans were trying to divide Californians on race. He said they were doing so by pushing Proposition 54, a measure on the recall ballot that would bar the state from collecting statistics based on race.

But among Latinos, the urge to swing to Davis' side is complicated by the presence on the ballot of Bustamante, who if elected would be the first Latino governor in modern times.

In a broader sense, much may ride on whether all voters -- but particularly Democrats -- believe the contrition that the governor forwarded Tuesday, or whether they see his speech as largely blaming others.

While continuing to hammer Republicans for attempting to craft a budget by cutting spending on schools -- or "kick 100,000 kids out of kindergarten," as he put it -- Davis conceded for the first time that he "could have been tougher in holding down spending when we had surpluses."

On energy, he recalled the improprieties of executives at Enron Corp. and other companies that gamed California's power market, saying they were "sitting down with Vice President Cheney" to develop national policy at the same time. But Davis also acknowledged accusations that he was slow to act when blackouts hit and electricity rates soared.

"I got your message," he said, "and I accept that criticism."

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