Struggling Davis turns up the heat

Going mano a mano with Schwarzenegger, governor focuses on sowing doubts about rival.

Long the overlooked outsider, California Gov. Gray Davis has suddenly and dramatically reshaped next week's recall election. For months, Governor Davis has stayed above the fray, crafting a softer image at town-hall meetings and maligning the recall from a dignified distance. Now, he is jumping in headfirst.

In addresses and advertisements, Davis has focused the full might of his campaign machinery on GOP front runner Arnold Schwarzenegger - challenging him to a debate, questioning his voting record, and charging him with lying about the economy.

With polls showing opposition to the recall stalling and support for Mr. Schwarzenegger climbing after last week's debate, the shift in strategy is an acknowledgment that in this most volatile of elections, Schwarzenegger has seized the momentum at a crucial time, political analysts say. Moreover, it has promised to turn what has, at times, been a bogglingly complex election into a simple two-man race.

Vote "no" on the recall and get Davis. Vote ""yes" and get Arnold.

Davis's goal, in many ways, is to do what he has often done: sow so many doubts about his competitor that voters find him a safer choice. But it is a political tack also fraught with danger for a governor disliked by two-thirds of the state's voters. If the campaign turns nastier in the coming days - as many expect it might - it could undo his recent progress and remind voters of what they like least about their governor.

"People are tired of his use of negative campaigning," says Sherry Jeffe, a political scientist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

Narrowing options for Davis

Certainly, the new, contentious tone to the campaign could cut both ways. Schwarzenegger vowed to run an attack-free race. But Californians seem to have given him a longer leash since he is new to the political process; he's already broken a promise not to fundraise. Davis, on the other hand, has a history of bludgeoning his opponents, including comparing Sen. Dianne Feinstein to convicted tax-evader Leona Helmsley during a 1992 race. At the beginning of the recall, Bill Lockyer, Democratic state attorney general, warned Davis that if he engaged in "puke politics," Democrats would abandon him.

So far, Davis has alleged that Schwarzenegger didn't vote in 13 of the past 21 elections and he has pledged to correct each day what he claims are Schwarzenegger's false statistics on the economy. A series of new ads will dwell on the same points.

Few options, it would seem, are left for the governor. Davis, after all, is not like Schwarzenegger - a newcomer who can refine his image day by day. Californians have known Davis for five years and have already made up their minds about him, and every poll except the Los Angeles Times Poll has found that the recall leads by double digits. Moreover, the latest Field Poll indicates that some 90 percent of respondents were certain of their recall vote, whereas only 60 percent had decided on a replacement.

A tilt toward Schwarzenegger

As a result, Davis's political future is largely in the hands of those who would replace him. "The weaker Schwarzenegger is, the weaker [candidate Cruz] Bustamante is, the better it is for Davis," says Mark DiCamillo of the Field Poll in San Francisco. But relying on candidates' missteps "is not the way you want to play out the campaign. Imagine if momentum builds up with a candidate on the other side?"

That could be exactly what's happening. A Gallup Poll put Schwarzenegger at the head of the replacement vote field by 15 percentage points, with 40 percent, and suggested that 55 percent of registered voters would support the recall. If Davis can't narrow the recall gap to 5 to 7 percentage points in the new Field Poll, which could come out as early as Wednesday, his final-week task will be monumental, says Mr. DiCamillo.

By contrast, it seems that last Wednesday's debate, originally seen as a stalemate, actually tilted toward Schwarzenegger, helped along by key Republican endorsements he received a day later. "People were amused [by the debate]. They liked the one- liners," says Tony Quinn, coauthor of the California Target Book. "They saw [the candidates] as adequate alternatives."

If true, it is a serious blow for Davis. He has employed national figures from the Rev. Jesse Jackson to former Vice President Al Gore to make the opposite point: that the recall would wreak havoc by undoing a legitimate election. And there is evidence that it was working, as Davis reduced his deficit on the recall question by some 10 percentage points over the past two months.

In that context, some say, the shift toward attacking could backfire. "It will remind people of all the charges that will be made that all Davis knows how to do is run negative," says Barbara O'Connor, a communications professor at California State University, Sacramento. "People will be saying, 'What happened to the kinder, gentler Gray Davis?'"

No one, though, is likely to dismiss Davis before Oct. 7. If he has proven himself capable of anything during his nearly 30 years in state politics, it is his ability to survive. "It will be difficult for him to close the gap," says Professor Jeffe. "But I've learned never to count out Gray Davis."

"To come back from a 20-point deficit in a two-month setting in that environment," adds Di-Camillo, "would be remarkable."

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