LOS ANGELES - Alternately contrite and defiant in his most direct response to the attempt to remove him from office, California Gov. Gray Davis asked the state's residents yesterday to help him stop a "right-wing power grab" that he said would do "lasting damage to our state, our environment and the very fabric of our democracy."
The governor used the 19-minute address to concede, for the first time, that he had made mistakes on major issues - being too slow to respond to the energy crisis and not tough enough in controlling state spending when the state treasury was flush.
Davis did not apologize as some observers had speculated he might. Instead, he sought to place the state's energy and financial dilemmas in what he described as a broader context that would have troubled any governor.
A notoriously wooden speaker, Davis was true to his usual form. Yet he appeared relaxed - even laughing as one man in the audience derided opponent Arnold Schwarzenegger - and received considerable applause from a partisan crowd of invited guests, many from labor unions and environmental groups.
The speech was heavily tailored to appeal to Democratic constituencies - with references to a long list of party priorities, from abortion rights to workers compensation. Above all, Davis sought to appeal to his party by saying he had been targeted by Republicans who were frustrated that they could not defeat him in last November's regular election.
He said the recall followed a GOP pattern that began with the impeachment of then-President Clinton, continued with the blocking of a vote recount in the 2000 presidential vote in Florida and again emerged in redistricting attempts by Republicans in Colorado and Texas.
"This recall is bigger than California," Davis said. "What's happening here is part of an ongoing national effort to steal elections that Republicans cannot win."
The governor spoke seven weeks before the election at the end of a day filled with these developments: Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger released his first television ad. The spot, to air beginning this morning, echoed the candidate's words on entering the campaign that "the politicians are not doing their job." Speaking directly to the camera, Schwarzenegger says he stands "for fiscally responsible government: rebuilding California's economic engine, putting the needs of children first and reforming our political system, so that the public interest comes before special interests."
The U.S. Justice Department said it has not yet given a clearance needed before the election can go ahead in four California counties. The department hasn't ruled on Monterey County's application to reduce the number of polling places from the usual 190 to 86 for the recall vote, without violating the Voting Rights Act.
Political observers said the combination of humility and feistiness in Davis' speech was designed to win back disaffected Democrats. The party remains dominant in California, and Davis strategists have said they believe the argument that the recall is a case of partisan politics run wild can be effective for them. Focus groups have shown that Democrats might be willing to vote against the recall if Davis acknowledged some failures, political analysts said.
But critics predicted Davis' attempt to cast himself as the victim of a Republican plot will fail. Green Party candidate Peter Camejo called the conspiracy theory "just not true."
"The Republicans did not fix the polls that showed he was at 22 percent" approval, Camejo said.
And Bill Simon Jr., who lost to Davis last year and is now running again, said that the governor did anything but take responsibility, as he promised he would at the start of the speech.
"What we heard was, 'It's somebody else's fault. It's a conspiracy. It's President Bush. It's the national economy,'" Simon said. "It's everything, but Gray Davis himself."
The speech started as Davis appeared with his wife, Sharon, on the stage of the Ackerman Ballroom at the University of California, Los Angeles just after 5 p.m. - in time for evening newscasts. He appeared calm as he launched almost immediately into a speech he said was intended "to take responsibility, to set the record straight and to talk about the future."
He spoke first about the state's $38 billion budget gap and the crisis that in his first term threatened power outages and had the state buying power at hugely inflated prices.
On both issues, the governor went further than he has in the past toward accepting responsibility. But he also depicted events that he said made the twin crises hard to avoid.
Davis said he would accept the public's assessment that he had been "slow to act on the energy crisis."
But he had more to say about what he believes he did right - avoiding substantial electricity rate increases or widespread blackouts. He said Californians had been "victims of a massive fraud" by electricity producers, some of whom, he said, "are on their way to jail."
He concluded his answer to the energy crisis by noting that California has avoided blackouts like the one that swept much of the Northeast and Midwest last week.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.