Former President Clinton waded into the California recall fight Sunday, offering an impassioned defense of Gov. Gray Davis during services at an African American church in Los Angeles -- the first in a series of planned appearances this week by prominent Democrats casting the recall as part of a national confrontation with Republicans.
Warning that California faces dire consequences if the recall succeeds, Clinton exhorted an adoring congregation at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in the West Adams district, weaving New Testament scripture and stories into his case against the recall.
"Yeah, Gray Davis and I have been friends a long time, and I don't want this to happen to him," Clinton said in the church, amid a chorus of affirmation from about 1,000 congregants and the purple-robed choir. "But this is way bigger than him."
"It's you I worry about," he continued. "It's California I worry about. I don't want you to become a laughingstock, a carnival or the beginning of a circus in America where we just throw people out, soon as they make a tough decision. Don't do this. Don't do this."
"Don't shred your Constitution," he said. "Don't shred the fabric of government. Don't tell people Californians are so impatient that they give somebody an employment contract and then tear it up in the middle because times are tough. This is the right thing to do, to beat this recall."
Clinton and Davis later appeared together at a Mexican restaurant along Olvera Street, where they greeted diners and shoppers passing by.
Asked whether he believed the recall attempt was a Republican conspiracy, as some Democrats have charged, Clinton said: "No, it's not a conspiracy, because a conspiracy is something that's secret."
"I got mad at -- a little disappointed -- when my wife, Sen. Clinton, said it was a vast right-wing conspiracy. I said: 'Hillary, you're right. It's vast, and it's right, but it's not a conspiracy. It's right there for everybody to see. It's not secret.'
"This is about getting power, and it's their first value," he said, referring to Republican backers of the recall.
Clinton was the first in a line of well-known Democrats coming to California as the party tries to emphasize the national stakes in the recall campaign. Davis will appear separately this week with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, former Vice President Al Gore and two Democratic presidential hopefuls -- Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Bob Graham of Florida.
As Clinton rallied support for Davis, the state Republican convention in Los Angeles concluded, with GOP delegates divided between support for actor Arnold Schwarzenegger and state Sen. Tom McClintock.
Schwarzenegger picked up an endorsement Sunday from the California State Firefighters Assn., a training and professional development organization. The much larger California Professional Firefighters union has endorsed Davis.
Clinton's show of support came after recent polls showed Davis gaining some ground in his fight to defeat the recall in an Oct. 7 special election. Davis also received a boost at the Democratic Party convention in Los Angeles on Saturday. Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante -- the most prominent Democrat seeking to replace Davis -- appeared on stage with the governor for the first time in the campaign, and later assured Democrats that his first priority is to defeat the recall, not to replace Davis.
Clinton has already played an important role in the Davis campaign by long distance, speaking frequently by telephone with Davis to offer advice and encouragement, Davis campaign officials and aides said.
But Davis campaign officials and Democratic Party officials have viewed a personal appearance by Clinton as a crucial component in the effort to shore up support for the unpopular governor, especially among disgruntled Democrats. Even some Republicans concede that Clinton is a potent advocate for Davis among the Democratic faithful in California.
"It's not easy to get people excited about Gray Davis, but if anybody can, it's Bill Clinton," said Dan Schnur, a Republican political consultant who advised Peter V. Ueberroth before Ueberroth ended his gubernatorial campaign last week. Davis' "first objective has to be to motivate loyal Democratic voters. That's something that Clinton can help him do. But ultimately, Davis has to convince swing voters to oppose the recall, and that's probably something Clinton can't help him accomplish."
In launching the effort to convince California Democrats that defeating the recall is a worthy cause with national stakes, Clinton returned to a setting that was a frequent backdrop in his two successful presidential campaigns -- an urban African American church.