Calif. governor tries to brighten his dimming star

A little over a year ago, California Gov. Gray Davis seemed to be an unstoppable force.

In 18 months, the Democrat had already amassed more than $21 million to fend off any challengers in 2002 - not to mention an equally gaudy 61 percent approval rating. As the GOP fell into disarray and the state Assembly bowed to his will, there was even a hint of a future presidential candidacy.

Today, he's turned into something of a political T-ball. From the war on terrorism to the energy crisis, critics of how he has handled state affairs are thick as a Golden Gate fog. With the former mayor of Los Angeles announcing his candidacy for the governorship last week, Governor Davis now remarkably finds himself - at least in one poll - as the underdog.

There are some signs that Davis has received a boost from the feeling of national solidarity after Sept. 11. But some observers question how deep that new support is and suggest that the nation's most powerful Democratic executive is now vulnerable. "It's a combination of a lot of little things and one big thing," says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California in Berkeley.

That one big thing, of course, is the energy crunch. In the throes of crisis, when power brokers were paying exorbitant prices for energy, yet were unable to raise retail prices because of a deregulation plan, Davis famously quipped, "If I wanted to raise rates, I could have solved this in 20 minutes."

He never raised rates, and the power brokers failed, leading to blackouts. To avert a similar catastrophe this summer, Davis spent $43 billion in February to buy enough power to keep California running long-term. Unfortunately, as soon as he bought the power, the market settled and wholesale prices dropped. The state has been forced to sell excess power at 20 percent of its purchase price.

Compounding the problem, these long-term contracts have made the state's economic downturn more acute. With California getting most of its money from the sales tax - not property taxes - it is particularly vulnerable when residents spend less in a downturn. So experts suggest that California may be $14 billion to $20 billion in debt next year, forcing Davis into the dangerous position of raising taxes and cutting programs as he seeks reelection.

"Nobody blames him for causing the problem, but people do blame him for not doing anything when it was a problem but before it was a crisis," says Sal Russo, a Republican political strategist in Sacramento.

Acting too cautiously has been a frequent criticism. It resurfaced earlier this month when Davis issued a warning that there was "credible evidence" that four California bridges might be targeted for terrorist attacks.

The FBI warning he received, which actually stated that there was "uncorroborated information" of a potential attack, was sent to law-enforcement officials throughout the West. Yet Davis was the only state official to make it public.

While polls say many Californians were not unhappy to be warned, the local press was harsh, with several editorials chastening the governor. "It reinforces the image that he'll do anything ... to put himself in front of a camera," says Professor Cain.

To be sure, Davis has been ubiquitous since taking office some three years ago. Despite this, polls indicate that he has yet to carve out a political identity. His personality ratings have been in lockstep with his approval ratings throughout his term, showing that, to many Californians, he's simply a caretaker, not a character.

"His personal appeal doesn't seem to be adding or subtracting," says pollster Mark DiCamillo of the Field Institute in San Francisco. "He's seen as a steward, competent when doing a good job and cautious and too political when he's not."

To many, that trend could mean trouble as the California economy tumbles and deficits expand. Already, Davis's negative numbers are substantial, and only 20 percent of voters say they would definitely vote to re-elect him. A recent Field poll showed former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a Republican candidate, winning 45 percent of the vote to Davis's 42 percent in a two-way race. Even the Democratic Assembly is now taking shots at him. If he can't find a way to distance himself from the problems, analysts say, he could be in serious jeopardy.

Yet incumbents have always done well in California - only one governor seeking a second term has ever lost, and that was in 1942.

Moreover, some polls - such as one from the Public Policy Institute in San Francisco - show that Davis's approval ratings have jumped 10 points, to 54 percent, since Sept. 11.

While this era of good feelings might well be a momentary phenomenon, analysts all caution against counting Davis out. Few doubt his hunger to retain the governorship, and his experience and drive could well prove the difference. Says Arnold Steinberg, a political strategist in Los Angeles: "In terms of relentlessness, I would not underestimate his abilities."

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