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First Lady Casts Davis in a Warm Light

One political observer says of Sharon Davis, 'I think the way people's minds work, it's like: "If he's married to her, he can't be all bad."'

August 28, 2003|James Rainey and Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writers

It's not especially pleasant when they're describing your husband as "road kill." Or saying he's a bore. Or calling his career "dead in the water." Sharon Davis heard those hurtful words, and many others, in 1998. But she just kept cheering the man she loved -- all the way from the back of the pack to the governor's office.

California's first lady believes a similar surprise awaits the pollsters and pundits on Oct. 7. Always an energetic campaigner for her sometimes lackluster mate, Sharon Davis has become even more indispensable in the campaign to help Gov. Gray Davis fight off the first statewide recall in California history.

She urged his staff to mount a quick and aggressive presence on the Internet. She helped draft the address last week that combined contrition and defiance against a "right-wing power grab." She writes a Web journal (at several times a week on the progress of the campaign. When others slump or grow tired, Sharon Davis continues jetting around the state and popping up on TV; on Wednesday, alone, she did three interviews with national news outlets. And she is seeing victory ahead in a campaign that, even after five others statewide, she describes as "like no other."

"He has been underestimated before and has always managed to pull through," Davis said of her husband this week on KPPC-FM (89.3) public radio in Pasadena. "If this happens again it will be quite an amazing turnaround in the voters' minds, as well as in the media's minds."

In recent days, the first lady has focused particularly on high-propensity Democratic voters -- feminists and minorities -- trying to shore up her husband's core support.

"She is Gray Davis' best asset," said Barbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Cal State Sacramento. "She is warm and loving and sociable and people resonate with her.... I think the way people's minds work, it's like: 'If he's married to her, he can't be all bad.' "

The governor likes to call his 49-year-old wife his "secret weapon." But the secret has been out for some time. Sharon Davis possesses many of the traits her 60-year-old husband is not known for: She is upbeat and personable, works easily with others and campaigns with relish.

On the Capitol steps after a news conference to declare Tuesday "Women's Equality Day," she was approached by World War II veteran John Radov, who said he supports her husband.

"Can I give you a hug," the first lady asked, melting into the flustered veteran's burly arms.

The governor's advisors say they try to honor Sharon Davis' request to appear on behalf of her husband as often as she can. That makes her an exception in a race in which other candidates' spouses have been markedly absent. Even Maria Shriver, the television journalist who is married to Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, has remained behind the scenes since he took out his candidacy papers.

O'Connor said that the governor might appear self-pitying if he talked about the personal toll of the recall, but that when his wife does it she may gain voters' empathy.

"She can best articulate the unfairness of it and do it in a way that is not pitying ... in a very loving way without being a whiner," O'Connor said.

On Tuesday, a typical day, Sharon Davis skipped from a meeting with the Feminist Majority Foundation in Beverly Hills to a rally at Cal State L.A. to the rally on the Capitol steps.

She appeared fresh and resilient, even with the temperature pushing over 100 degrees. After waiting for two hours for her turn to address the Cal State L.A. gathering, she neatly managed to meld her anti-recall message with another theme of the rally -- defeating Proposition 54, the ballot measure that would bar public agencies from collecting many types of racial data.

Davis attributed both the ballot measure and the recall to the schemings of conservative Republicans set on "rolling back the clock."

"With all that you've heard up here today," she said, "there's only two things you have to remember: Just say 'no' twice on election day."

Later, the first lady issued a good-natured dig at Shriver, warning that California does not supply a plane for its governor.

"This is not quite as glamorous as Hollywood," Davis said. "I think they'll be quite surprised when they get here, if that's the case."

Sharon Davis has also made it her business to fight back against what she believes is unfair media coverage, telling friends in an e-mail last week: "I need your help now more than ever." She asked recipients to protest what she said were two "unfair" columns in the Los Angeles Times that said Schwarzenegger had delivered a more compelling performance than the governor that day.

The onetime flight attendant -- who met Davis on a plane when he was chief of staff to Gov. Jerry Brown -- never envisioned a political life for herself.

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