What Gray Davis has to do to survive recall

California's governor will likely have to define who he is rather than attack his GOP foes for what they aren't.

In political circles, it was hailed as a tactical masterstroke.

With his popularity already sliding before last year's election, California Gov. Gray Davis - a Democrat - made the bold and unprecedented move of meddling in the Republican primary. By targeting moderate Richard Riordan with a $9 million ad campaign, Governor Davis helped propel conservative Bill Simon to an unlikely victory - and into an election Davis won without much effort.

It was at once an exhibition of the governor's greatest weakness and strength: Unable to lean upon a powerful personality, he outflanked the opposition as a Patton of political strategy. Now facing a recall, this tactical acumen remains Davis's clearest advantage. But this time, the best strategy is anything but clear.

To many Democratic consultants, the recall's peculiarities require Davis to run a more positive campaign. To others, the situation demands the exact opposite. It is indicative of the uncertainty that has permeated every level of political process here, as Davis and others are forced to devise a strategy for an election more akin to a Bulgarian parliamentary run off than anything Americans have ever seen.

"Nobody has been faced with this before," says Harvey Englander, a Democratic consultant with the MWW Group in Los Angeles.

As a result, no one is quite sure how to approach it. There will be no primary and no runoff. Anyone with $3,500 and 65 signatures can enter, and if Davis is recalled, whoever gets the most votes wins. Recent reports suggest that more than 200 Californians have taken out papers to run, and as many as a half-dozen major Republicans could enter the race.

Searching for the right strategy

So far, the Democrats have remained united behind a plan to stay above the fray: If no prominent Democrat enters the race, then the recall will be a stark choice between Democrat Davis and everyone else.

Yet support for the all-or-nothing strategy is cracking, as Democrats examine the recall ballot more closely. It is divided into two questions. First: Should Davis be recalled? Second: If he is recalled, whom do you choose as governor? Significantly, even people who vote "no" on the recall are allowed to choose a replacement governor. Under the current strategy, however, they will have no Democratic choice.

A growing chorus of Democratic leaders is suggesting that the Democrats put up a single entry, who would campaign against the recall, but act as a hedge in case the recall passes.

It's dangerous either way, observers suggest. If there is no Democrat on the ballot, the recall could pass with only 51 percent of the vote, and a Republican could become governor with only 25 support. On the other hand, a second Democrat could drag the Democrats into the chaos they seek to avoid.

"If one credible Democratic candidate enters the race, how many others will follow?" says Tim Hodson, a political scientist at California State University in Sacramento.

For Davis himself, the basic task is far simpler: His job is simply to defeat the recall.

If he does that, "it takes care of the second" question of who should replace Davis, says Gale Kaufman of Kaufman Campaign Consultants in Sacramento.

How a governor with a 22 percent approval rating goes about that, though, is a matter of deep debate. This weekend, during an interview at the Sacramento Bee, the Democratic attorney general admonished Davis for his negative tactics in last year's election and warned him that many Demo crats would revolt if he attempted them again. Though a top Davis strategist criticized the attorney general, some consultants say he has a point. "It's hard and dangerous to focus only on [opponents], because [Question 1] is a 'yes' or 'no' question," says Ms. Kaufman.

Already, Davis has shown hints that his campaign might develop along these lines. In numerous public appearances during the past week, he has cast the recall as a decision over the future of California, touting his own record as more in line with the state's values and leaving others to criticize the recall. He even hugged a reporter when talk turned to his aloof public image.

For a man rarely given to impetuosity - a man who eats a turkey sandwich without mayonnaise for lunch every day - it was a telling moment. Davis's political career has been driven by discipline and calculation, and these qualities make him uniquely qualified to fight the recall, some say.

"He has very strong survival instincts," says Derry Sragow, a Democratic political consultant. "He will do exactly what he needs to do."

Davis's liability: his image

Still, others wonder if Davis can win a campaign that focuses on him. If Ronald Reagan was "Teflon Ron" for his ability to shrug off problems, perhaps Joseph Graham Davis should be "Velcro Joe." Rarely has a politician of such stature so conscientiously not developed a public persona. Gray often seems as much an adjective as a name. In turn, many Californians have seen Davis as a robotic fundraising machine, and they have ascribed the full range of California's ills to one man.

"If this recall is solely about Gray Davis, his approval ratings gives a good indication of what the outcome will be," says Professor Hodson. "He's got to shift attention away from himself and onto the recall."

Either way, all agree that he must motivate Democrats. With the election at an odd time - Oct. 7 - Davis will depend on traditionally Demo cratic organizations such as unions to get out the vote, as well as high-profile visitors. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, for one, is scheduled to come to California this week.

"[Davis has] got to motivate all the Democratic core constituencies," says Mr. Englander. "If he's not able to pull that off, he cannot win."

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