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Davis in a Risky Gambit

His last-ditch strategy hopes to create fear that Schwarzenegger isn't up to the job. There are signs that the approach could backfire.

September 30, 2003|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

In a final bid to save his job, Gov. Gray Davis is hoping to recast the recall election in its last few days as a different sort of referendum: a vote on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

After trying out various approaches -- indifference, anger, contrition and, now, confrontation -- the beleaguered incumbent and his strategists are hoping that an added element, fear, can help achieve the 50%-plus-one vote he needs to stay put.

"What we have to do is make people realize a 'yes' vote is a vote for Arnold," said David Doak, a Davis advisor, referring to the interplay of the two main questions on next Tuesday's ballot. "This is not small potatoes here. This is a big, complicated place and there's a lot to know about. He's not going to be stepping into an easy situation."

The strategy is risky, however. With Davis' dismal approval ratings and history of slashing campaigns, he may seem less than credible to voters. The fact that the Democrat trails in opinion polls also may undermine his arguments. "Whatever they come out with now, it's going to look like sour grapes," said Stuart Spencer, a veteran GOP strategist.

But perhaps the biggest risk is that voters will see no risk at all. That is, they not only accept the idea of actor Schwarzenegger, a political neophyte, assuming the helm of the nation's most populous state, but actually embrace it.

"The public knows who Arnold is," said Tony Quinn, a nonpartisan Sacramento campaign analyst. "He's one of the most famous people on the face of the earth. They're not looking for a 12-point plan dealing with water transfers. They just don't like the way the whole political class has run things."

Strategists for the Republican front-runner are blunter still. "This recall is, in fact, a referendum on Davis, and he's failed it," said Mike Murphy, communications chief for Schwarzenegger's campaign. "Gray Davis is everything people in California have learned to despise about politics."

Partisan shots aside, the real problem Davis faces in these waning days of the campaign is persistent defections within his own party ranks. It is among those drifting Democrats that Davis hopes to raise fears of Schwarzenegger as governor.

Surveys have consistently suggested that about one in five of the governor's fellow Democrats plan to vote next Tuesday to turn him out of office. Many are convinced, Davis aides say, that he will win anyway -- in the same way the governor won reelection in November after Democrats stayed home in droves, or backed third-party candidates as a means of casting a protest vote.

For that reason, the Davis camp professed to welcome a CNN/USA Today poll that showed the recall winning in a landslide and Schwarzenegger the top finisher in the replacement race. Even if the recall's lead was far larger than in any other poll, it was "a bit of a shock to the system" that Democrats needed, awakening party loyalists to the prospect of a Schwarzenegger victory, said Susan Kennedy, a Davis advisor.

Still, the Davis camp is laboring under one great disadvantage: People don't like the governor very much. So there is, literally, only so much he can do to save himself. Indeed, his next batch of campaign ads illustrate that harsh reality. The spots -- echoing Davis statements on the campaign trail -- are expected to borrow from a number of newspaper editorials opposing the recall and criticizing his Republican rival.

By contrast, Schwarzenegger is the star of his latest TV ad, set to begin airing today. Staring into the camera, he asks voters for their help and blames the state's problems on politicians in Sacramento, hoping to tap a vein of anger running broad and deep across California. "I know what we need to do, and I know how to get it done," he says, without elaborating on either point.

For all his missteps, his glancing discussion of issues and the distraction posed by the candidacy of fellow Republican Tom McClintock, Schwarzenegger has long had an easier task in this election than Davis. After all, while the governor needs majority support to survive, his challenger only needs one more vote than any of the other 134 candidates on the replacement ballot, which excludes the incumbent.

Schwarzenegger has been the Republican front-runner from the instant he made his unconventional entry into the race, with a blurted announcement on Jay Leno's "Tonight Show." The actor's celebrity ensured that name recognition was never a problem, and his vast personal wealth allowed him to build a lavish campaign operation.

But Schwarzenegger's greatest strength has been his outsider message, delivered with perfect pitch and exquisite timing: precisely when the establishment is the enemy, and voters are willing to take a bigger risk than usual for the sake of trying something new.

"I think the masses of people are thinking, 'Fine, he won't do any worse than anyone else,' " said analyst Quinn. "They're putting their trust in maybe. Maybe things will get better. Maybe he can fix things."

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