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Davis Recall Drive Still Lacking Cash, Credibility

Rep. Issa's pledge of funds could invigorate the effort, which has so far failed to catch fire.

May 08, 2003|Mark Z. Barabak and Richard Simon | Times Staff Writers

With a burst of publicity and the promise of badly needed funding, the movement to recall Gov. Gray Davis gained strength this week. But the effort is still hampered by a struggle for cash and credibility that bolsters Davis' chance of survival despite his widespread unpopularity, political analysts say.

Even as proponents said they planned to launch a stepped-up petition drive as soon as this weekend, Rep. Darrell Issa on Wednesday offered the latest in a series of conflicting statements about his financial commitment and willingness to run as Davis' replacement. The Vista Republican had emerged earlier this week as the potential savior of the recall drive, which has lagged in its efforts to collect the roughly 900,000 signatures needed to force a vote.

Aides then said that Issa would commit a six-figure sum to the recall campaign. But Issa refused to be pinned down on how much he would contribute or precisely how much in other donations he has solicited.

"This isn't about how much I contribute, other than my time," Issa said in an interview on Capitol Hill. "It's not about one donor. It has to be many donors."

Toward that end, Issa said he and others would soon come up with "in the neighborhood of a half-million dollars" as he seeks to raise $1.2 million to pay for a professional signature-gathering drive. He declined to confirm what he has privately told Republicans throughout the state: that he is, in effect, running for governor in the event the issue goes to voters.

With Issa's involvement, three separate groups are now taking part in the effort to oust the incumbent Democrat, who won a closer-than-expected election last November and has grown even less popular as he wrestles with the state's mammoth budget shortfall. Though still in its infancy, the recall holds out the possibility of complicated strategy assessments for the state's political class, with Republicans forced to decide whether to try to take over the state's fiscal mess and Democrats pressed to side with or against their party's governor.

Although Davis has largely ignored the recall effort in public, he held a lengthy private session with political advisors who continue to discuss among themselves the outlines of a prospective campaign. If it comes to that, the governor may have to do without the services of his longtime strategist, Garry South, who is expected to sign on shortly with one of the Democratic presidential candidates.

The recall attempt is being led by a handful of conservative activists, including anti-tax crusader Ted Costa and Sal Russo, the manager of Republican Bill Simon's unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign against Davis. Despite their common goal and an agreement to use the same recall petitions, members of the different organizations have viewed one another with suspicion, thwarting attempts to cooperate and undermining their collective goal. With one quarter of their collection time gone, recall proponents say they have gathered about 100,000 signatures toward the 897,158 valid signatures needed by Sept. 2.

Typically, a campaign would need to collect 1.2 million signatures by then to ensure it hits the required tally, strategists said.

"Clearly, the groundswell they were hoping for hasn't emerged," said Tony Quinn, a nonpartisan campaign analyst in Sacramento. "If they're going to get the signatures they need, they're going to have to buy them."

But complicating efforts to hire signature collectors is the absence of any tangible support from the GOP establishment, party leaders in Sacramento or the California Republican donor community. The White House, which has taken a strong hand in state party affairs, has also kept a notable distance.

"I can understand why people would be unhappy with the fiscal state of California," said Gerald Parsky, a Westside businessman and President Bush's chief political emissary in the state. But even after Issa's attempt earlier this week to jump-start the recall, Parsky said, "Our priorities are having enough financial resources to win California for the president and to strengthen the California Republican Party."

Privately, many GOP leaders are contemptuous of Davis, but voice little confidence in their own field of potential candidates, including Simon and Issa.

"Recalling Gray Davis is easy," one Republican official in Sacramento said Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The hard part is making sure a Republican is elected to replace him. No one has yet shown me a convincing plan to do that."

Given the tepid response and the desperate need for dollars, the involvement of Issa has been enthusiastically embraced by recall proponents, who are counting on the wealthy lawmaker to spur others to follow.

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