California's 'Best Worst Choice'

LOS ANGELES -- Why are California voters turning against Democratic Gov. Gray Davis?

Start with this: Davis is a supremely tactical politician. That's how he got elected, say the experts. "Gray Davis has managed to make a career out of being the last man standing," observes Phil Matier, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. "If you look at his history in politics, it's not that people love him so much. It's just that everybody else just seems to get shot down in the cross fire."

The voters say that, too. A Californian I interviewed on a Los Angeles street said Davis is "a disaster. I voted for him, and I regret it, although the choices were so thin that he was the best worst choice."

The voters may be on to Davis's tactics. They blame the governor, not just because they think he's handled things badly, but because they think he kept the bad news from them until he was re-elected last fall. "I think he knew there was a $38 billion deficit before the election and basically kept it quiet," another voter said.

So now the voters are behaving tactically. In the view of Republican political consultant Allan Hoffenblum, "What they want is change in Sacramento, and the only mechanism that's been offered to them right now is to replace the governor."

With California in so much trouble, the governor doesn't have many passionate defenders. But he has plenty of passionate critics. Matier says, "Chances are, you're not going to passionately say, 'It's not his fault.' Not as much as you're going to passionately say, 'It is his fault.' "

In fact, Californians are standing in line to say it. "I've been involved in politics for a long time," Hoffenblum said. "Never before have I seen card tables with people standing in line to sign petitions. They're standing in line!"

Even though Davis won re-election last November, the voters seem to have very little commitment to their choice. That's why they can turn on him so quickly. "In some ways, politics is like a reality TV show," Matier says. "The voters are kind of bored with it right now. It's not working out. It won't take much to get them to change the channel."

The petition to hold a recall election looks likely to get the 897,158 signatures needed to qualify for the ballot. The only real question is when the vote will be held. If the signatures are verified before September 4, a special election will be held this November and presumably will be dominated by Davis-haters -- conservatives and Republicans who want to drive him out of office.

It's unclear whether Democrats would flock to the polls this fall to try to save Davis. In a Los Angeles Times poll last week, 54 percent of Democrats, 52 percent of liberals, 55 percent of blacks, and 63 percent of Hispanics gave Davis a negative job rating.

If the required signatures are not certified until after September 4, the recall could be held at the same time as the March 2 presidential primary. Recall organizers don't want a March vote because there's no GOP presidential primary this time. Democrats would come to the polls to vote for a presidential nominee -- and presumably vote to keep Davis, as long as they're there.

Can Davis survive the recall effort? Certainly, he can by making his opposition the issue. Another voter I interviewed on the street said, "This whole thing smacks of some right-wing campaign to weaken Davis and perhaps weaken the Democratic stronghold in California."

The Times poll shows a bitter, partisan, and sharply divided California electorate. Fifty-one percent of registered voters say they would vote to recall Davis, while 42 percent say they would vote against a recall. In the same poll, only 22 percent of registered voters expressed approval of the job Davis is doing as governor. That means opposition to the recall is nearly twice as high as support for Davis.

"There are not a lot of people in California who wake up in the morning and say, 'Gray Davis, what a great guy. I can't thank God enough that he's there,' " Matier said. "But there are enough people in California who will turn around and say, 'I have to live with this guy because the alternative is just unbearable.' And that's what they're betting on."

It may be a good bet. Stories are coming out about the arrest record of Rep. Darrell Issa, the conservative Republican who is funding the recall campaign and says he wants to succeed Davis. Once again, Davis could end up looking like "the best worst choice."

Davis's best chance to survive is asking, "Who's behind this? What's their agenda?" Or better yet, bring President Clinton to California to pose those questions. He carried California twice, by big margins, and remains very popular here. Clinton could say, "The same people who tried to bring me down are trying to bring Governor Davis down."

Clinton, like Davis, is a moderate Democrat and a brilliant tactical politician. But Clinton also had passion and vision. Shortly after he was elected, Davis said about the state Legislature, "Their job is to implement my vision." Fellow politicians in California were dumbfounded. They wondered what he could be talking about.