LOS ANGELES - In his five successful campaigns for statewide office, Gov. Gray Davis relied on a simple strategy: He raised huge amounts of cash and then battered his opponent with a barrage of negative ads.
Now, facing an unprecedented Oct. 7 special election to recall him, Davis has been persuaded by prominent Democrats to try another tack: remind Californians as frequently as possible that he is the governor.
"My focus is to do my job," Davis said this week in an appearance at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, using a line that has become a mantra at nearly every public appearance. "A lot of people want to be governor. I am privileged to be governor."
In attempting to project the image of a diligent chief executive, attending to the problems of California as the recall drum beats around him, Davis is taking a page from the playbook of former President Bill Clinton. In fact, Davis aides said, Clinton advised Davis to adopt this strategy, which the former president used during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and impeachment crisis during his second term.
But unlike Clinton, who was popular with voters and, according to polls at the time, had the support of most Americans as he fought the impeachment, Davis has approval ratings only slightly higher than 20 percent. And more than half of Californians support his recall, according to recent polls.
Davis advisers contend that the governor can turn those numbers around if he works on problems while emphasizing the causes and programs he championed during better financial times. They are banking on the public growing tired of the recall fray and ultimately seeing Davis as the responsible choice, even if they continue to dislike him.
"People are upset in this state, and the governor understands that," said Peter Ragone, communications director of the Davis campaign. "While other people are aggressively playing politics, the governor is aggressively governing."
Although the plan is for Davis to emphasize his role in shaping public policy, he isn't ignoring the attempt to unseat him. In news media interviews and public appearances, he has depicted the recall as an attempt by right-wing extremists to overturn November's election. Davis continues to make that case, although in less strident terms since some Democrats urged him to tone it down; it echoed Clinton's description of the investigations that culminated in his impeachment.
Sensitive to past criticism of his slashing campaign style, Davis will attempt to allow surrogates in labor and his campaign to throw many of the punches in this campaign.
"He's certainly not going to shy away from questions on the recall, but he is first and foremost going to govern," Davis campaign director Steve Smith said. "He expects the campaign at the same time to conduct a very strong campaign, seeking 'no' votes on the recall."
The governor's only public appearance yesterday, an event at a gas station in Los Angeles, was another attempt to present Davis governing rather than campaigning. During normal times, the event would have been one in a string of routine appearances around the state. But all appearances by the governor these days are news media spectacles, attended by throngs of reporters and cameras, eager to record his every move and question him about the recall.
"As someone once said, fasten your seat belts, because this is going to be a bumpy ride," Davis said at yesterday's event. "There will be many twists and turns between now and Oct. 7. But I believe at the end of the day people are fair-minded. They just put me in office less than a year ago to handle what is admittedly a very tough job. And so I've laid out every day what I'm going to do to make life better."
The governor's stated reason for yesterday's event was to ask the Bush administration to exempt California from new rules requiring the additive ethanol in gasoline. But the recall was clearly the subtext, and the news conference had the clear aura of a political campaign event.
Davis was joined by California Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Winston Hickox, who opened by calling Davis "the governor in history that will be remembered for accomplishing more for the environment than any governor." Afterward, Todd Campbell, a representative of the environmental group Coalition for Clean Air, also praised the governor's environmental record.
"He has time and time again stepped up for California communities," Campbell said. "I know these are dark times. I hope you stand tough and persevere through this recall."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.