An expectant congregation, primed by a choir that belted out gospel hymns, cheered and applauded when Clinton walked into the sanctuary, trailed by Davis and other elected Democrats, including Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn, state Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi and Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer. Clinton gave bear hugs to Pastor Cecil Murray and other church officials, while Davis exchanged more restrained embraces and handshakes with his hosts.
Looking on from the congregation were more than a dozen other elected officials and key Democrats, including City Council President Alex Padilla, Rep. Diane Watson, NAACP Chairman Julian Bond and farm labor leader Dolores Huerta, named by Davis to the UC Board of Regents last week.
Davis preceded Clinton to the microphone, earning a warm introduction from church leaders who praised his record and noted that he "faces the political fight of his life."
Davis began by offering a paraphrase of Psalm 133: "How good it is to dwell in the house of unity," he said. "In unity we find strength."
Pulling a prayer card from his pocket, Davis showed it to the congregation and quoted the words on it: "Nothing will happen to me today that the Lord and I cannot handle together."
As applause echoed, Davis continued: "And I believe in my heart that nothing will happen in this state that you and I cannot handle. But there are forces arrayed against us, powerful forces, both in California and Washington."
He went on: "And many of those same forces are behind this recall effort. That recall effort threatens the very fabric of democracy."
Davis said, "Some of these same forces, particularly in Washington," tried to force Clinton from office with the 1998 impeachment.
"As I go about these days, we're facing a lot of adversity, and in adversity you begin to understand who your friends are," Davis said in his concluding remarks. "I have many friends in this audience. I've found many friends on this stage. But I have no better friend than the former president of the United States, William Jefferson Clinton."
Clinton stepped to the microphone amid a raucous standing ovation.
Poking fun at some of his political trials -- and making the point that "politics has tides; sometimes we're coming in, and sometimes we're getting washed out" -- Clinton recalled that he was the youngest governor in the country when he was elected in 1978, and the youngest ex-governor two years later when he was voted out of office.
"I mean, there were people who would walk across the street to keep from being seen with me," Clinton recalled, as the crowd erupted with laughter. "You could have made a lot of money if you had bought stock in me back then, because my price was lo-ow."
Clinton recalled that, after his crushing defeat in 1980, he turned down an offer from California Gov. Jerry Brown to replace Davis, who had just left as Brown's chief of staff.
He recounted the New Testament story in which Jesus tells those who sought to have him condemn an "unclean" woman: "Let he among you who is without sin cast the first stone."
Slowly, with the congregation interrupting him with cries of "Amen" and applause, Clinton tied his words to the recall, something he said should be used only "in the most extreme cases" and not to express voter anger over hard times.
Clinton noted that California wasn't alone in its budget problems, that a Republican governor in New York and the Republican mayor of New York City had both raised taxes this year to address fiscal crises.
"The problems that you had are getting better. You didn't lose your lights" when recent power blackouts hit the East Coast, Clinton said. "You got a budget. You got five years of schools improved. But if you do this recall, you may create a problem that you won't get over for a long, long time."
Clinton said a successful recall would spread "like a virus that infects people. Now they're talking about recalling the Republican governor of Nevada."
He also attempted to link the recall to a broader pattern of Republican behavior, citing his impeachment, the disputed 2000 presidential election and Republican attempts to pull off an unusual mid-decade reapportionment of congressional seats in Texas and Colorado.
As Clinton stepped away from the podium, Davis stepped forward, shook Clinton's hand and said, "Thank you."
Clinton replied: "I hope it helps."
Clinton's remarks were well received by many in the congregation, but Davis' problems were also in evidence.
Beverly Charles of Hawthorne, 45, a training manager at Los Angeles Air Force Base, said Clinton had made a persuasive case that the governor deserves time to finish his term. She said a child performing poorly in school would not be told: "You're not doing well, so we're going to kick you out."
But she said she was still undecided on the recall.
"I don't really care for Gray Davis," she said. "I don't really have anything against him, but he never tickled my fancy."
Davis later told reporters during his Olvera Street appearance with Clinton that he was delighted by the show of support from prominent Democrats.
"Lots of people want to be helpful," he said. "I think Democrats and independents and some Republicans will understand -- this is not their interest."
Schwarzenegger aides, however, said the Clinton message had missed the point.
"While we acknowledge that Mr. Clinton has support from a certain segment of the California electorate, it is Gray Davis who is on the ballot, not Bill Clinton," said Sean Walsh, spokesman for Schwarzenegger. "And to use the now famous line from Mr. Clinton, 'It's Gray Davis, stupid.' "
Times staff writers Michael Finnegan, Matea Gold and Joe Mathews contributed to this report.