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As Bustamante Gains, Davis Inches Toward Backing Him

August 22, 2003|Mark Z. Barabak, Matea Gold and Dan Morain | Times Staff Writers

Gov. Gray Davis edged closer to abandoning his me-or-nothing strategy against the recall, as key Democrats rallied behind the backup candidacy of Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante to hedge against losing power in Sacramento.

Bustamante picked up several major endorsements, including the backing of the state's Democratic congressional delegation and a vote of support from the powerful California Teachers Assn. Both groups also urged a "no" vote on efforts to oust Davis. A similar move by state Democratic legislators is expected next week.

In brief comments to The Times after a fund-raising event in San Francisco, Davis said: "Cruz Bustamante is a good and decent person, and I believe his involvement in the race will bring out more voters who will vote against the recall."

"I know some of my aides were of a different view initially," Davis added. "But I believe the excitement of his candidacy will actually attract more people to polls who will vote 'no.' "

Those words stopped short of endorsing Bustamante, but moved Davis closer to aligning himself with the emerging position of the state Democratic Party establishment.

"We strongly oppose the recall," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), head of the Democratic congressional delegation. "But if California voters make a different choice, then Lt. Gov. Bustamante is the appropriate person to assume the office."

The shift in position reflected growing Democratic nervousness over the party's risk of losing the governor's office in the Oct. 7 election, given its unusual permutations. The first part of the recall ballot will ask voters whether Davis should be recalled; the second will ask who should replace the governor if voters turn him out. Until recently, Davis had argued strenuously that his best hope for beating the recall lay in presenting voters a clear yes-or-no choice on question one, with no Democratic fallback.

Yet as support for his strategy has crumbled, even some of the governor's own political advisors have been counseling him to embrace his potential Democratic replacement, for the sake of party unity and to better his chances of keeping his job.

"It's in nobody's interest right now to be fighting over this," said one Davis aide, describing advice the governor has received. "I think we should go in the flow, because right now it's in everyone's interest to see it happen."

But other aides were offering different counsel, and not all party leaders are ready to rally behind the "No on the Recall, Yes on Bustamante" banner. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, one of the state's most popular elected Democrats, said during a campaign appearance in L.A. with Davis that "I am not going to vote on the second part of the ballot."

Feinstein, who has scolded Bustamante for running after originally saying he wouldn't, added that "I'm going to vote on the first part of the ballot, and my vote is going to be to vote no on the recall."

San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, speaking with a Times reporter after the Davis fund-raiser, said, "I'll probably vote for Cruz, but I'm not interested in anyone knowing that."

"It's 'no on the recall,' period. That's what I want everyone focusing on," he added.

For his part, Bustamante welcomed the endorsements. Campaigning in Coronado, he insisted that he was not stumping to undermine Davis.

He called the recall an abuse of the political process and told reporters, "I'm in competition with Arnold and Tom and Simon and Peter" -- a reference to the major GOP hopefuls. "I'm not in competition with Gray."

Faced with unique political circumstances and an unprecedented election, Democratic and Republican strategists alike were scrambling to figure out the best way to approach the next six weeks of campaigning.

On the GOP side, there was continued talk of trying to clear the field for Arnold Schwarzenegger, but none of his rivals seemed ready to step aside.

"It's up to the voters to make a selection based upon the candidates that have presented themselves," said state Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks), who is running for governor. The sentiment was echoed by GOP candidate Bill Simon Jr.

But the calculations on the Democratic side are more complex, given both the dual nature of the question -- keep the governor or try replacing him with a different Democrat -- and the history of personal animus between Davis and Bustamante and their campaign teams.

Even as those tensions continued to boil, party leaders sought to play down any rift.

"We believe that unity within the party around opposing the recall very strenuously but supporting Cruz is a winning strategy that will draw more people to the polls," House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco said in an interview.

"The danger is missing an opportunity to increase turnout," she added. "Many people don't know that if they don't vote on the second [part of the] ballot, a Republican can sail right in there.... If we don't vote on the second part, we give it away. We cannot give it away."

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