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Candidates Walk Fine Political Line

Analysis: Bustamante is trying to make a case against the recall while separating himself from the governor. Republicans hope to link the two men.

August 26, 2003|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

Gov. Gray Davis' tenuous acceptance of Cruz Bustamante's candidacy has boxed the lieutenant governor into a delicate political position, as he tries to argue that he is the best alternative, should the unpopular incumbent be recalled.

On one hand, Davis' recent comments grudgingly praising Bustamante's bid could help the lieutenant governor win valuable donations and endorsements from Democratic constituencies. Those are sorely needed by his "No on the Recall, Yes on Bustamante" campaign. The state's Democratic congressional caucus, as well as several unions, backed that strategy last week, and on Monday, the state Senate's Democratic caucus followed suit.

But the two Democrats' common service in Sacramento during the governor's tenure could link the two men in the eyes of voters who have little fondness for Davis.

"The Republicans will make the argument that Cruz is an extension of Gray, which is not credible or fair," said Democratic strategist Bill Carrick. "But I think Cruz needs to become the de facto Democratic nominee, and that sort of comes with the territory. There's nothing he can do about it."

Davis, who unsuccessfully fought to keep other Democrats off the ballot, has thus far urged the public to vote no on the first ballot question -- whether he should be recalled. Although he has said Bustamante is the best candidate to replace him if it comes to that, he has not endorsed any course of action on the second part of the ballot. He might do that 10 days before the election, Davis said

So far, Bustamante has appeared ambivalent about how much he wants to associate himself with the sitting governor. In the last week, he has implied that Davis is arrogant and pointed out that the two men have not spoken in weeks. But he has so far declined to distinguish himself further from Davis, deflecting questions about whether he would bring the same approach and policies to the office as Davis has.

"The voters know that we're separate and we're different," he said in an interview last week, noting that in California, candidates for governor and lieutenant governor do not run as a ticket.

Bustamante campaign strategist Richie Ross called questions about whether the lieutenant governor could be hurt by his connection to Davis as "enjoyable speculation for the smarty-pants and the professional observers."

"It's not going to happen, so we're not going to worry about it," Ross said.

Even if Davis does formally endorse Bustamante, Ross said, he does not think that will translate into joint appearances by the two men, who have feuded for years.

"When it comes to the Davis operation, the word 'joint' is not in their lexicon," he added.

But Ross said the campaign would welcome Davis' support, if it is given.

"The worst that happens to us is that we help grow the pool of voters so large that the governor defeats the recall and a Democrat remains in office, and Cruz fulfills the balance of the term he ran for," Ross said.

Davis spokesman Peter Ragone said that, for now, no joint events are scheduled. He would not say whether Davis would ultimately endorse Bustamante.

"The governor is going to continue to talk about the fact that he thinks that Cruz is a good guy and is the most qualified person" on the ballot's Question 2, Ragone said. "But we're going to stay focused on Question 1."

Earlier in the month, Bustamante's decision to place his name on the Oct. 7 recall ballot exacerbated long-standing tensions between the two officials. The two men split over Davis' handling of the state's legal strategy regarding Proposition 187, the initiative aimed at denying illegal immigrants access to health care and education. They have spoken little since then.

But in recent days, Davis has appeared to be edging toward accepting Bustamante's candidacy.

"His entry in the race, I think, will actually help me by bringing out more people to vote no on the recall," the governor said during an appearance on CNN Sunday. "And clearly, he's the most qualified person." He would not go further.

Republicans have seized on the governor's statements. Arnold Schwarzenegger's spokesman Sean Walsh called Bustamante the "Mini Me" to Davis' "Dr. Evil." The Republican actor himself on Monday called Bustamante "Gray Davis with a receding hairline and a mustache."

GOP strategist Ken Khachigian said, "The biggest attack point on Bustamante is that he fits right into the Gray Davis mold."

The very premise of Bustamante's candidacy places him in an odd situation. By telling voters they should reject the recall question -- but vote for him in case it succeeds -- the lieutenant governor has positioned himself as the only prominent candidate who is not making a case about why Davis should be replaced. The posture has its risks.

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