Davis tweaks his image, but will it woo voters?

Even as he humanizes his persona, fellow Democrat Bustamante pitches his own bid.

Esther Ponce has her routine ready for the moment Gray Davis glides by in the Mexican Independence Day Parade: With a stately air befitting British royalty, she demonstrates how she will wave "hello" and "goodbye" to the California governor.

On Oct. 7, the Latino homemaker will vote to recall the governor. The fact that he has descended from the marble tower of Sacramento to meet with the masses here makes no difference to her. And his decision to give illegal immigrants access to driver's licenses is too late. "He didn't pull for us before," she complains.

Farther down the bustling sidewalks of East First Street, though, Davis has made a true believer out of Nelly Momblan. "He's definitely stepping up his game," says Ms. Momblan, who rode in the parade with a pro-immigrant group. "He should have done it earlier, but at least he's trying."

Since the recall qualified for the ballot, shifts in Davis's personality and policy have hinted at what experts believe is his greatest chance for survival. At town-hall meetings and along parade routes like this one, he has presented a softer side, invoking God and striking a note of contrition. In the statehouse, the avowed centrist has embraced liberal bills, seemingly seeking to strengthen support among his Democratic base.

Yet for Davis, winning support in his own party is a complicated task - made even more so by the other Democrat on the ballot, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante. This week, in a significant shift, Mr. Bustamante started to promote his own candidacy rather than encourage Californians, first, to reject the recall and then support him. His move effectively further divides the Democratic Party.

Yet, in one of the many oddities of this recall election, some believe that Mr. Bustamante's increasingly bold bid for the governorship could strengthen Davis's position. Bustamante's liberal positions on some issues make Davis appear more of a moderate. It's possible that even some conservative Republicans, upset over Arnold Schwarzenegger's run, may vote 'no' on the recall while hedging their vote with a 'yes' for conservative Tom McClintock, seeing a Davis victory as less scary than a Bustamante win.

Still, this past Sunday's festivities offer a snapshot of how difficult Davis's task could be. Few see a change in the man, and frankly, few care. Instead, most here say they are interested in his policy. Some, like Momblan, say Davis's recent decisions have made an impact. Many others, however, acknowledge no last-minute maneuverings are likely to affect how they vote.

"It's hard in three months to undo a career's worth of not being someone who inspired a lot of passionate support," says Tim Hodson, a political scientist at California State University in Sacramento.

In truth, Davis has few other options open to him. Yet intense media coverage of the race could work to Davis's advantage. "In order to rehab your image, what is required is a forum where voters have an opportunity to reassess," says Mark DiCamillo, a pollster in San Francisco. "This recall is presenting this governor with that forum."

He has held televised Clinton-style town halls up and down the state. He faced direct questions from voters before last week's debate. And he has become a regular at parades and ceremonies - something he had previously avoided. Yet the impression has not always been inspiring.

At the Mexican Independence Day Parade, Davis motors through the crowd on the top of a red double-decker bus, unable to shake a single hand. When he gives a short speech, it is more subdued than ecstatic. "He doesn't have that great style," says Art Placencia amid the throng.

Mr. Placencia has seen Gray Davis talk so many times that he can expertly mimic the governor's three reactions to applause: the thumbs-up, the right-hand-over-the-heart, and the universal arms-in-the-air sign of gratitude. But Placencia is not here to chide Davis and his mannerisms. The president of the Latin American Law Enforcement Association calls Davis a "great guy" because of his support of Latinos.

The driver's license bill is a part of that - as well as a broader trend. Once a centrist brake on the liberal-leaning legislature, Davis has now thrown his support behind several sweeping bills. He has promised to sign a measure that would give same-sex couples the same rights as married couples in issues such as child custody and financial support. "That doesn't help with independents," says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley. "But ... he doesn't have a chance if he doesn't win the Democrats."

Yet the bills can also cut another way, especially the driver's license bill signed Friday. Davis once vetoed a similar version, saying it presented a threat to national security. Yet the bill Davis signed Friday addressed none of the concerns he had a year ago. "It can be seen as pandering [for votes]," says former Republican strategist Tony Quinn.

Besides, many Latinos might vote "yes" on the recall in hopes that Bustamante will win.

That's Ms. Ponce's plan. She feels sorry for Davis but won't vote for him. "We will stand behind our own kind," she says.

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