LOS ANGELES - California Gov. Gray Davis came under growing pressure yesterday to abandon his me-or-nothing strategy against the recall, as key Democrats rallied behind the backup candidacy of Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante to hedge against losing power in Sacramento.
Bustamante picked up several major endorsements, including the backing of the state's Democratic congressional delegation and a vote of support from the powerful California Teachers Association. Both groups also urged a "no" vote on efforts to oust Davis. A similar move by state Democratic legislators is expected next week.
"We strongly oppose the recall," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, head of the Democratic delegation. "But if California voters make a different choice, then Lieutenant Governor Bustamante is the appropriate person to assume the office."
The move reflected growing Democratic nervousness over the party's risk of losing the governor's office in the Oct. 7 election, given its unusual permutations. The first part of the recall ballot will ask voters whether Davis should be recalled; the second will ask who should replace the governor if voters turn him out. Davis has strenuously argued that his best hope for beating the recall lies in presenting voters a clear yes-or-no choice on the first question, with no Democratic fallback.
Yet as support for his strategy crumbled, even some of the governor's own political advisers were quietly counseling him to embrace his potential Democratic replacement, for the sake of party unity and to better his chances of staying in Sacramento.
"It's in nobody's interest right now to be fighting over this," said one Davis aide, describing the advice the governor has gotten. "I think we should go in the flow because right now it's in everyone's interest to see it happen."
But other aides were offering different counsel, and Davis seemed to come down yesterday in the middle.
"I'm not going to comment on what I'm going to do on the second part of the ballot," the governor told reporters in Los Angeles. "I have said in the past, and I will repeat, that Cruz Bustamante is a good and decent person, and even though the conventional wisdom is that my chances of prevailing ... on the first question will be hurt if anyone else got into the race, the conventional wisdom is sometimes wrong. It's quite possible that his entry into the race will bring more people to the polls that are inclined to vote no" on the recall.
Another sign of party division came yesterday from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, perhaps the state's most popular elected Democrat, during a appearance in Los Angeles with Davis.
"I am not going to vote on the second part of the ballot," said Feinstein, who has scolded Bustamante for running in the recall after originally saying he wouldn't. "I'm going to vote on the first part of the ballot, and my vote is going to be to vote 'no' on the recall."
For his part, Bustamante welcomed the endorsements. Campaigning on Coronado Island, he insisted that he was not stumping to undermine Davis. He called the recall an abuse of the political process and told reporters, "I'm in competition with Arnold and Tom and Simon and Peter" - a reference to the major Republican hopefuls, actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, state Sen. Tom McClintock, businessman Bill Simon Jr. and former baseball commissioner Peter V. Ueberroth. "I'm not in competition with Gray."
Faced with unique political circumstances and an unprecedented election, Democratic and Republican strategists alike were scrambling to figure the best way to approach the next six weeks of campaigning.
On the GOP side, there was continued talk of trying to clear the field for Schwarzenegger, but none of his rivals seemed ready to step aside. "It's up to the voters to make a selection based upon the candidates that have presented themselves," McClintock said. The sentiment was echoed by Simon, who lost to Davis in November.
But the calculations on the Democratic side are more complex, given both the dual nature of the question - keep the governor, or try replacing him with a different Democrat - as well as the history of personal animus between Davis, Bustamante and their campaign teams.
Even as those tensions continued to boil yesterday, party leaders sought to play down any rift.
"We believe ... opposing the recall very strenuously, but supporting Cruz is a winning strategy that will draw more people to the polls," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in an interview.
"The danger is missing an opportunity to increase turnout," she said. "Many people don't know that if they don't vote on the second ballot, a Republican can sail right in there. ... If we don't vote on the second part, we give it away. We cannot give it away."
The head of the California Teachers Association made a similar argument after the union voted in Sacramento to both oppose the recall and support Bustamante.
"We really believe the recall is a bad idea," said Barbara E. Kerr, the CTA president. "But it's important the successor - if there is a successor - know about public education. And we can't leave that to chance."
Bustamante also picked up the endorsement of Los Angeles City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, his successor as state Assembly speaker. "The risk is clearly that the state will could end up with a candidate with absolutely no experience in governance," said Villaraigosa, who has also been a close political ally of Davis. "There's too much at stake to allow that to happen."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.
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