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It's Who You Know

We've seen candidates reveal different personas. But there's only one Gray Davis.

September 30, 2003|Dan Schnur | Dan Schnur, a Sacramento political consultant, was manager of Peter Ueberroth's campaign for governor in the recall election.

There are two Arnold Schwarzeneggers. There is Celebrity Arnold, who recites taglines from his movies ("Hasta la vista, baby"), and there is Policy Arnold, who outlines his priorities for workers' compensation ("Third-party medical practitioners, baby").

Policy Arnold talks to political reporters about opening up state government and balancing the budget. Celebrity Arnold talks to Oprah Winfrey and Howard Stern about weightlifting and sex.

There are two Cruz Bustamantes. There was once a Moderate Cruz, the former legislative aide who represented a Central Valley district from the middle of the political spectrum and opposed giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. Now there is Liberal Cruz, the statewide candidate whose most notable achievements on the campaign trail have been to promise to raise taxes, to accuse other people of racism and to launder contributions from the Indian tribes so many times that the ink on the bills has run.

There are two Tom McClintocks. There is Anarchist Tom, who revels in the applause of his loyal band of supporters for his no-holds-barred assaults on the leaders of both political parties. But there also is Political Veteran Tom, who may be beginning to wonder if coming in from the cold to join the establishment could finally give him some of the influence on public policy that he's always lacked.

But there is only one Gray Davis.

Over the course of this recall campaign, Davis has attempted to present himself to the voters in a variety of personas.

There was Statesman Gray, who promised to do the people's business without regard to the political Armageddon threatening to encircle him.

There was Apologetic Gray, who expressed regret for his past mistakes with the conviction and believability of a hostage delivering a ransom message.

But neither worked, because there is only one Gray Davis, with whom the people of California have become exceedingly, excruciatingly familiar. Call him Combat Gray.

The Gray Davis we know -- the only real Gray -- is the undisputed master of the lesser-of-two-evils school of politics. He became governor first by not being as rich as Al Checchi, and then by not being as conservative as Dan Lungren. He stayed governor by not being as inexperienced as Bill Simon. And his political mugging of Dick Riordan could have been scripted for an episode of "The Sopranos," so breathtaking was it in its cold-blooded efficiency and lack of conscience.

Combat Gray needs one thing to be effective: He needs a target. But the problem with the recall campaign is that there is no other guy. The first question is up-or-down on Davis, with no other alternative to consider.

There is no lesser of evils, just evil. So for several months, Davis has struggled to find somebody to be less evil than.

He first blamed Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), who promptly withdrew from the race. Davis then tried to campaign against the recall process, which proved a bit too abstract for most voters. His television advertisements have ridiculed the entire field of 135 candidates, which is overly confusing to viewers. But Davis has finally identified his target. Combat Gray has put Schwarzenegger squarely in his cross hairs and is shooting at him in rapid-fire succession. Over the last few days, he has challenged Schwarzenegger's knowledge of public policy, ridiculed his lack of experience and challenged him to a one-on-one debate.

Davis' past opponents have invariably been defeated by Combat Gray because they succumbed to temptation and joined him in mutual mud fests of name-calling and slime-peddling.

But the key to beating Davis is to resist the temptation to join him in his natural habitat. Instead, Schwarzenegger must rise above it.

Celebrity Arnold, the candidate who traded insults with Arianna Huffington in last week's debate, cannot accomplish this task. It will take Policy Arnold, who in the same debate discussed proposals for job creation and economic growth, to disprove Davis' charges and convince voters that he has a sufficient understanding of governance to effectively lead the state.

Granted, Celebrity Arnold is more fun to watch. But Policy Arnold can win.

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