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THE STATE | THE RECALL CAMPAIGN

Davis Seeks to Reveal His Warmer Side

Trying to counter bland image, governor speaks off the cuff and takes questions from the audience. He has little to lose, some analysts say.

August 22, 2003|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

As he fights to fend off a recall that analysts attribute to his chilly personality as much as his political record, Gray Davis has been striving to reveal the inner governor this week, trying to show voters he does indeed possess a more human, sympathetic side.

In a new series of campaign-style town hall meetings, as well as in his customary official public appearances, a more freewheeling Davis has begun veering from the script or even casting it aside. As he fields questions from different groups, he laces his answers with anecdotes about himself and his wife, Sharon, and even making allusions to his own spirituality.

Voters should not recall a governor "because you don't like blue shirts, or the way I comb my hair," Davis joked Thursday before members of the California Black Chamber of Commerce near San Francisco.

"We made a choice with this governor, and we're going to take him, warts and all," Davis added, urging those in attendance to fire off e-mails to friends with just such a message.

A day earlier, during his first in a series of "Conversations With Californians," Davis straddled a metal stool on a Los Angeles sound stage and listened to a community college student remark that she could no longer take higher-level French courses because of budget cuts.

He then offered his sympathy: "I feel badly about that," Davis said softly.

At the same event, Davis shared a story about his high school baseball coach seeing promise in him, and how it lifted his spirits as a young man and helped him as he moved from being an Army captain in Vietnam to a lawyer and then governor of the nation's most populous state.

"That one conversation changed my whole life," Davis said.

Campaign spokesmen say that by using the charm offensive, Davis is once again borrowing a page from the political playbook of former President Clinton, who appealed for public sympathy in the face of efforts to impeach him.

And as Davis gives detailed replies to questions from the audience, he is attempting to draw a contrast between himself and the leading Republican contender for his job, actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has been criticized for being too vague about how he would solve the state's problems.

Yet the new twist in strategy carries significant risk, Davis' political handlers concede. Instead of erasing the image of the governor as distant and aloof, it could reinforce it by continually placing him in challenging social situations -- settings that could remind voters of another Democratic politician, former Vice President Al Gore, who often seemed wooden and ill at ease in public.

Moreover, it could expose Davis to the type of unpredictable questioning that makes political campaign professionals uneasy.

That was the case Wednesday evening, when the first town hall meeting at a television studio on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles began with a question about why Davis had taken so many campaign contributions from logging companies. The perception that Davis has neglected his job to compulsively raise money is one that the governor's critics have long sought to fuel, and that his recall campaign has sought to downplay.

Davis answered the question smoothly, however. "If you can't take someone's contributions and vote against them," he said, "this is not the business for you."

He adroitly handled other questions on a broad range of subjects -- from the increase in college admission fees and the causes of the energy crisis to why the governor has so few friends in the state Legislature.

The bottom line, some political analysts said, is that Davis may not have any alternative but to gamble with a looser, more revealing approach, as long as polls continue to show his popularity plummeting.

"Let's face it. If it wasn't for his charisma deficit, Gray Davis probably wouldn't be in this situation," said UC Irvine political science professor Mark Petracca. "It clearly behooves him to appear as warm and fuzzy as possible right now, even if it tests the limits of his true personality."

"Yes, there is considerable risk for Davis," Petracca added. "He could come off as ridiculous or expose himself to embarrassing questions from the public. But I am not sure he really has any option at this point. Every day now, he is fighting a battle to stay in the headlines. He has to give the press a new reason to keep writing about him."

So far, Davis campaign officials said they are extremely pleased with the results of the governor's folksier persona. More important, they say, so is Davis, who felt he did well Wednesday night in his town hall appearance. They declined to say how many more such meetings the governor would hold, but promised that greater openness and candor would be staples of all the governor's upcoming public events.

"The governor feels liberated," said campaign spokesman Peter Ragone. "What's that line, 'Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose?' "

Whether the new approach translates to stronger public support remains to be seen, however.

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