LOS ANGELES - Former President Clinton waded into the California recall fight yesterday, offering a stirring defense of Gov. Gray Davis during services at an African-American church in Los Angeles - the first in a series of planned appearances this week by prominent Democrats casting the recall as part of a national confrontation with Republicans.

Warning that California faces dire consequences if the recall succeeds, Clinton exhorted an adoring congregation at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, weaving Scripture and stories into his case against the effort to remove Davis.

Clinton and Davis later appeared at a popular Mexican restaurant along Olvera Street downtown, where they greeted diners and shoppers.

"Don't shred your constitution," Clinton said in the church amid a chorus of affirmation from about 1,000 congregants and the purple-robed choir. "Don't shred the fabric of government. Don't tell people Californians are so impatient that they give somebody an employment contract and then tear it up in the middle because times are tough."

Clinton's support comes as Davis is building momentum in his fight to defeat the recall in an Oct. 7 special election. Davis gained ground in two statewide polls last week and received a boost at the Democratic Party convention in Los Angeles on Saturday. Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante - the most prominent Democrat seeking to replace Davis - appeared on stage with the governor for the first time in the campaign, and assured Democrats that his first priority is to defeat the recall rather than replace Davis.

As Clinton rallied support for Davis, the state Republican convention in Los Angeles concluded with GOP delegates divided between support for actor Arnold Schwarzenegger and state Sen. Tom McClintock.

Schwarzenegger picked up an endorsement yesterday from the California State Firefighters Association, a training and professional development organization. The much larger California Professional Firefighters union has endorsed Davis.

In the Democratic Party effort to emphasize the national stakes of the recall, Davis will appear separately this week with the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, former Vice President Al Gore and two Democratic presidential hopefuls - Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Sen. Bob Graham of Florida.

In launching the effort to convince California Democrats that defeating the recall is a worthy cause with national stakes, Clinton returned to a setting that was a frequent backdrop in his two successful presidential campaigns - an inner-city African-American church.

Clinton attempted to link the recall to a broader pattern of Republican behavior, noting his impeachment, the disputed 2000 presidential election and Republican attempts to pull off an unusual mid-decade reapportionment of congressional seats in Texas and Colorado.

Times staff writers Michael Finnegan, Matea Gold and Joe Mathews contributed to this article. The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.