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THE RECALL CAMPAIGN

A More Relaxed Davis Tries to Connect With the Voters

Governor warms to the town hall format. So far, the polls don't reflect any change in attitudes.

September 05, 2003|Gregg Jones | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — As he faces Californians in a series of town hall-style meetings around the state, Gov. Gray Davis has slowly warmed to the opportunity to make his case to the people who will decide his fate.

In encounters like Wednesday's candidate debate in Walnut Creek and a town hall session Thursday in San Diego, the notoriously stiff governor has demonstrated his command of issues and displayed flashes of humor, empathy and contrition.

"It's not something he's enjoying," said Susan Kennedy, one of a number of advisors who have encouraged the governor to seek out voters. "It's more cathartic than anything."

Nonetheless, aides say Davis' recent meetings with voters have offered the governor, who even opponents concede is a dogged campaigner, an opportunity to communicate directly with angry Californians.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday September 09, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 73 words Type of Material: Correction
Gov. Davis -- An article Friday in Section A incorrectly recounted a scene during a televised town hall meeting featuring Gov. Gray Davis in which the moderator completed a question for a college student who had forgotten what he wanted to ask the governor. The article incorrectly said that the moderator knew the question because it had been submitted in advance. In fact, the moderator simply deduced what the questioner had in mind.

It's difficult to gauge how voters are responding to the governor's more relaxed public demeanor. So far, polls have not shown any significant change in attitudes toward Davis.

In private, his continued unpopularity sometimes frustrates Davis. Several days ago, his low poll numbers prompted an angry outburst from the governor in a conversation with advisors, according to one of those present.

And while expressing a greater willingness to listen to voters and change his ways, Davis has still exhibited flashes of the style that has earned him few friends among lawmakers in Sacramento. On Monday, he described to reporters on his campaign plane a discussion he had had with legislators, saying he had been the "adult in the room" during the talks.

Still, in public, Davis has exhibited a relaxed, even confident, presence that seemed missing earlier in the recall campaign, as well as an ability to connect with people in his audience.

Thursday, during an hourlong town hall televised by the NBC affiliate here, Steven Collins II, a college student, was poised to ask Davis about fee increases at California's public universities, but he forgot his question when his big moment came.

After the moderator paraphrased the question, which Collins had submitted ahead of time in writing, Davis looked earnestly out at Collins. "Nothing matters more to me than that you get a good education and go on to be a productive citizen," he said.

He then went on to talk about even deeper cuts in spending for higher education that had been proposed by Republican lawmakers.

Davis even drew a laugh as he tried to maintain eye contact with another of his questioners, bobbing back and forth to peer around moderator Marty Levin before exclaiming, "You're blocking my view!"

The town hall format suits the governor, said Barbara O'Connor of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Cal State Sacramento.

"I actually think they are effective for him. I've watched him for 30 years, and I'm not very fond of him, but I think he has had a metamorphosis. I can see it in his body language. He's not petulant. He's not condescending. I really think he is trying to listen."

"Whether he can pull this off in the time left is something else," she added.

The current campaign plan, which relies heavily on the town hall-style sessions, marks at least the third strategy the governor and his team have pursued in opposing the recall.

During the summer, Davis and his aides sought to downplay the recall, insisting it would never get on the ballot. That effort backfired, many Democrats now say, by making Davis appear too passive.

Once the recall did get on the ballot, Davis spent several weeks limiting his appearances primarily to events that highlighted his official duties. The idea was to contrast Davis the governor with the chaos of the recall.

But that strategy provided no immediate way for Davis to address public anger.

Davis and his aides felt the need for a different approach. Larry Grisolano, Davis' campaign manager, said the governor "basically came to a conclusion that, in order to take on the recall, he needed to go face to face with voters, hear what they have to say and, in a direct and personal way, tell them he's attuned to their anger and is committed to doing what they want to get done."

Davis' current effort began with a speech at UCLA on Aug. 19. It went badly, aides now concede. Davis stumbled, they say, drawing attention to his awkward style and distant personality with clumsy hand gestures and ill-timed smiles.

Since then, however, in a series of town halls, Davis has seemed much more comfortable. The format offers him a better opportunity to speak to the concerns of voters and explain his decisions as governor in a more informal and personable way, aides said.

"I think before the first one, there were some butterflies for all of us, but since then he's more than warmed to it," said Peter Ragone, communications director for the Davis campaign.

At each town hall meeting and campaign speech, Davis hits a series of key points, sometimes working them into his answers to questions. He repeats his lines with unflagging discipline:

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