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Davis Is Battling Image of Aloofness

At town hall meetings, the governor doggedly tries to connect with voters. But he remains true to -- and trapped by -- himself.

October 05, 2003|David Zucchino | Times Staff Writer

The audience was Latino, and the topic was illegal immigrants.

Gov. Gray Davis, perched stiffly on a TV studio stool like a schoolboy in a spelling bee, recited his lines in a thin, reedy monotone.

Illegal immigrants are indispensable to California's economy, he began. But then he seemed to forget his audience.

"We need immigrants to pick our food and put it on our tables," he said as the audience -- middle-class Latinos, primarily -- shifted uncomfortably. "We need immigrants to clean our hotels and office buildings and take care of the elderly."

And: "That work is important.... Whether people are janitors or maids or busboys or cooks, it's all part of the experience we enjoy when we're at a restaurant or a hotel."

If any of the Latinos in the studios of the Spanish-language station Univision felt patronized, they didn't say so. But the governor's words landed with a dull thud Monday night, creating one of many awkward moments as he fought for his political life in the final week of the recall campaign.

Gray Davis is a man running against himself -- against his image as aloof, cautious, condescending and emotionally stunted. Even as he broke with past practice and plunged into staged encounters with those he calls "real people," he battled his own rigid personality and wooden syntax.

The governor has said his survival hinges on taking his case directly to the people. But during three days of public appearances, often the strongest response was indifference to a politician who has never seemed comfortable in his own skin.

As hard as Davis tried to be personable and approachable, his body language betrayed him. In his dark suits and blue ties, with his narrow jaw set and his helmet of white hair at attention, he stood ramrod straight, arms at his sides.

Most politicians wave or wink or grin at voters in campaign crowds. Davis stares at a point somewhere in the middle distance.

Part of the problem is that he is not technically a candidate. He's the governor. He's trying to rally support for a negative -- a "no" vote on recall.

To his credit, Davis plunged into one public event after another, gamely offering reasons -- framed by issues and policies, not personality -- for voters to save his job. He was contrite and chastened, acknowledging that he had strayed too far from the concerns of ordinary people.

"I'm honored to be able to speak directly to Californians and to hear their questions, whether they're tough questions, or whether people are angry -- and I know many are," Davis told the Latino studio audience.

And far more than Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor addressed issues, even if his dry recitation of facts and legislation tended to anesthetize listeners.

No Makeover

At this desperate juncture, some politicians -- Al Gore comes to mind -- would order up a personality makeover. Not this governor. All week, he stayed true to the essential Davis -- and that just may be his downfall.

Davis is burdened by what pollsters call "high negatives." Voters tell pollsters that they just don't like the guy, though they can't quite articulate their gut antipathy, except to say that he somehow screwed up the budget or the economy or the electricity crisis.

In a rare burst of spontaneity, Davis has tried to make light of his image. At an appearance with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, he was asked whether his tough TV ads meant that he had abandoned attempts to present himself as more engaging and less distant.

"What are you talking about?" he said -- and suddenly lurched at Richardson, wrapping him in a stiff hug. "I'm cuddling and doing my best to be kinder."

Richardson's startled look made it obvious that the last thing he had expected from Davis was a touchy-feely love fest.

Voters don't seem to know what to make of this enigmatic man, this career politician and public servant who has yet to learn how to engage the people who twice elected him to the state's highest office.

At the Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles, Davis descended upon unsuspecting diners trying to wolf down their lunches. After shaking the governor's hand and receiving a brisk "Good to see you," one woman was asked what she thought of Davis. She shrugged and said, "Nice suit!"

Davis may operate in a charisma-free zone, but he is an intelligent and disciplined politician. He is famously well-drilled on the issues. He is rarely caught off guard by a question. He can rattle off health-care and job statistics and provide detailed accounts of how legislation passed or how his policies were formed. He stays on message, even when circumstances demand an unscripted approach.

As each new poll showed the recall effort gaining ground, Davis doggedly pounded away at Schwarzenegger. His campaign had concluded that the best way to fend off the recall was to present the actor as dangerously inexperienced and not up to the job.

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