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Polls Suggest More Partisan Campaigning

The race may become more polarized as the major candidates tailor their appeals to their most loyal supporters, strategists say.

September 13, 2003|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

The center is shrinking as the major candidates sharpen their partisan appeals in California's increasingly competitive recall race.

Public opinion polls released this week showed Tom McClintock gaining, suggested trouble for Cruz Bustamante, had Gray Davis slowly recapturing support, and indicated Arnold Schwarzenegger may be stalled as he tries to straddle an ideological rift within the Republican Party.

The movement -- or lack of it -- hints at the road map each will follow in the roughly three weeks left until election day. Their pathways suggest even more polarization in a state already deeply split by the Oct. 7 vote.

Though he's still an underdog, circumstances have improved for Gov. Davis. He seized on the latest Times Poll -- which showed that voters remain almost evenly split on the ouster effort -- to say Friday "the momentum is now on our side."

"I believe the more Californians learn about the recall, the more they turn against it," Davis said in Los Angeles.

The next few days will bring a flurry of campaign activity as the major campaigns try to shore up their weak points and maximize their strengths.

McClintock and Schwarzenegger will appear separately before loyalists gathered today in Los Angeles for the state GOP's semiannual convention. Behind the scenes, sources said, party leaders will work to coax McClintock out of the race.

Democrats will hold their own Los Angeles convention, where delegates are likely to formally oppose the recall and endorse Bustamante as a backup candidate, just in case.

The polls indicate that Davis still needs to shore up his standing among some Democratic voters. Over the next several days, he will pursue that goal with the help of a long list of national Democratic figures who will be visiting the state to campaign with him.

The parade will begin Sunday when former President Clinton will join Davis at First AME Church in Los Angeles. In a further effort to boost support among black voters, the governor plans to campaign Tuesday in the Bay Area with the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Later in the week, two Democratic senators running for president, John Kerry of Massachusetts and Bob Graham of Florida, plan to join Davis.

The courtship of fellow Democrats continues an effort Davis has made to win back party loyalists after distancing himself through much of his first term. He continues to be stymied by lackluster support among union members and Latinos, two key groups he will need to beat back the recall effort.

Chris Boulware, a bread deliveryman in Fontana, is one Democrat supporting Davis' ouster. He cited the governor's support for legislation expanding gay rights and granting illegal immigrants the right to carry driver's licenses.

"Gray Davis is just trying to save his neck," said Boulware, 44, who participated in the Times Poll and agreed to a follow-up interview. "I don't think he stands for anything."

But Davis strategists see voters like Boulware as the exception, convinced there are many more Democrats they can convert by framing the election as "a question of values," as one Davis strategist put it.

"As this thing becomes more partisan, I think those voters come home," said David Doak, who fashions Davis' campaign advertising. "The more partisan, the better."

The other major Democrat involved in the recall, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, will launch his statewide TV ad campaign Monday, his aides said.

Richie Ross, who is directing Bustamante's campaign, said the ads will focus on "mainstream Democratic values" -- abortion rights, environmental protection and such -- in an effort to win back the partisans who have slipped away from Bustamante in recent weeks.

"We believe when we've advertised for a week or 10 days, those people will come back to their original feelings," Ross said.

Bustamante fared perhaps the worst of all the major candidates in the latest polling. Both the Times Poll and the Field Poll that came out this week found his negative ratings soaring. In the Times Poll, they rose from 29% in August to 50% in the latest survey.

Bustamante has taken a pounding for using a campaign-finance loophole to accept more than $3 million in contributions from Indian tribes, and for refusing to distance himself from a Latino student group that critics denounce as racist.

The rise of the immigration issue also appears to have hurt Bustamante, who seeks to become California's first Latino governor in more than a century. The Times Poll found that 16% of likely voters cited immigration or the granting of licenses to illegal immigrants as the most important issue for the next governor to address. That is more than the number who cited such issues as tax cuts, terrorism, crime, drug abuse or the environment.

"I can just see a new flood of immigrants coming in and more things being given to them," said Herbert Browning, 73, a retired cosmetics salesman and Los Angeles Democrat who opposes the recall, as well as Bustamante's candidacy.

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