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Aides Feel Davis May Pull It Off

Strategists think the key to beating the recall is to continue town hall meetings and stress the idea that alternatives to the governor are risky.

September 25, 2003|Gregg Jones | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — As the candidates who would like to replace him attacked one another during their televised debate Wednesday night, aides to Gov. Gray Davis said they increasingly feel that they are within striking distance of saving the unpopular governor's job.

Six weeks ago, Davis' chances of survival looked so bleak that donors were reluctant to contribute money and prominent Democrats were reluctant to stand on the same stage with him.

Now, with several nonpartisan polls showing the race tightening, his strategists believe that they can win if they change the minds of about 3% of the electorate -- mostly independents and some Democrats who now lean toward recalling the governor.

To accomplish that, Davis' aides say, they do not plan any major surprises over the 12 days before the Oct. 7 election. Rather, their plan calls for Davis to continue meeting angry voters face to face in town hall meetings around the state. At the same time, he will be waging a television advertising campaign designed to sow doubts about the recall in the minds of voters.

Planting those doubts may be easier, Davis aides believe, after Wednesday night's debate, in which the candidates broadly attacked one another's politics and personalities and only occasionally criticized the governor.

Since the start of the recall campaign, Davis and his aides have tried to emphasize the governor's knowledge of issues and his experience in making difficult policy choices. Their argument in speeches and advertisements has been that while voters may not like Davis, the alternatives are too risky.

Campaign aides say the argument has begun to catch hold with a significant share of the electorate. "Voters have started taking a closer look at the options, and I don't think people are seeing anything they would be willing to trade for," said Larry Grisolano, Davis' campaign manager.

Wednesday night, the governor's aides were predicting that the unruly nature of the debate would underscore that theme.

"It does reinforce the image that this is a circus," said Davis advisor Susan Kennedy.

"You have candidates up there giving easy and flip answers to very complicated questions," she said. "You can't solve California's problems with 30-second sound bites."

Some outside analysts said the campaign's assessment may be correct. Even though the widely televised debate gave Davis' rivals extensive publicity, the moments of raucous back-and-forth and the absence of a clear winner may help the governor, said Barbara O'Connor, director of the Center for the Study of Media and Politics at Cal State Sacramento.

"I don't think we saw a lot of movement in voters tonight, and I think that serves Gray well," she said. "Some people who watched the debate may think, 'Maybe we're better off with the devil we know; nobody makes me want to run out and vote.' "

In exploiting whatever advantage the debate might provide, Davis' strategy relies on one of the governor's most salient traits -- campaign discipline.

As other candidates try to sprint to the finish line, Davis' aides are talking about a more methodical approach, some using the football analogy to describe their steady, grinding strategy: "three yards and a cloud of dust."

Since a speech the governor delivered Aug. 19 to an audience of supporters at UCLA, Davis has repeatedly stuck to a few themes: admitting to voters that he has made mistakes as governor, accusing Republicans of using the recall to undermine last fall's election and defiantly vowing to fight for his job.

"You've seen day in, day out an incredible discipline and focus when it comes to our strategy," said Peter Ragone, the campaign's communications director. "That includes talking to voters face to face and talking about the Republican nature of this recall."

Persuading Davis to let voters vent their anger in town hall meetings was a slow process, aides say. Even after agreeing to the strategy, which his aides insisted was necessary if he was going to change voters' opinions of him, the governor was unenthusiastic about the prospect of such in-person encounters.

But he has appeared increasingly comfortable in such forums over the last month.

"I always knew he could do it," said Garry South, who ran Davis' two gubernatorial campaigns and now serves as an unpaid advisor. "The thing about Gray Davis is he has the ability to rise to the occasion."

Davis relies on a group of advisors who have worked extensively together. Most have served in previous campaigns of his, some dating back to his run for lieutenant governor in 1994.

By contrast, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante stumbled early on, in part because of the difficulty of putting together an experienced and efficient team in such a short, fast-paced campaign, political strategists from both parties say.

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