- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 28, 2002

LOS ANGELES Governors heading into election season with mediocre approval ratings, a well-known charisma deficit and surrounded by a whiff of scandal don't usually start their campaigns by sharply raising taxes.

California Gov. Gray Davis is going to give it a shot anyway.

"We've got to make hard choices," spokeswoman Hilary McLean said. "Sure, it's not the popular position to make budget cuts or tax increases but you're elected to govern in good times and bad."

But there's no way around the fact that Mr. Davis' political light has dimmed since his charmed ascension to the governorship four years ago. His job-approval ratings have dropped by a third and the one-time buzz about a presidential bid has all but dried up.

In the second half of Mr. Davis' term, the state has gone from enjoying the nation's largest budget surplus to suffering the nation's worst deficit, nearly $24 billion. Mr. Davis' approval ratings have slipped from a high of 61 percent in late 1999 and early 2000 to a mere 42 percent last month in the widely respected, nonpartisan Field Poll.

And Mr. Davis has been buffeted by scandals and political missteps. A teachers union representative said this spring that Mr. Davis hit him up for a $1 million donation during a meeting in the governor's office.

At the same time, the governor's top technology officer was ousted over a non-bid contract for business software with Oracle a deal that cost the state $41 million more than it needed to spend. To make matters worse, Oracle cut a $25,000 check to Mr. Davis' re-election fund after the sweetheart deal was negotiated.

All this plays into the governor's reputation as a relentless fund-raiser of almost Clintonian stature an image reinforced when reports surfaced recently that he had offered to meet individually with college students for a mere $100 contribution each.

"He's a marathon man who doesn't break a sweat or get a single hair out of place, let alone display anything resembling a human emotion, even when caught in compromising position with his donors," acerbic Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez wrote May 15. "It's almost as if he's got a pathological disorder."

The governor's handling of the electrical-power crisis last year which saw rates skyrocket and rolling blackouts sweep across the state turns out to have been a disaster. At the height of the crisis, Mr. Davis negotiated long-term contracts with electrical suppliers that locked in rates for years to come. But the crisis quickly subsided and market rates plummeted, leaving the state saddled with deals to buy power at rates far higher than the open market's.

When Mr. Davis took office in 1999, polls showed that 59 percent of Californians felt the state was headed in the right direction, with only 27 percent worried about the future. Today, 50 percent say the state is on "the wrong track" and only 43 percent say it is headed in the right direction.

So it would have seemed like the final deathblow to Mr. Davis' re-election hopes when he revealed his budget last week. Mr. Davis proposed raising taxes, despite saying in January that he would not do so, by $1.8 billion. He also proposed $7.6 billion in cuts, including reductions in services for the poor and cuts in the lifeguard force that patrols the tricky waters off the state's beaches.

Despite it all, Mr. Davis still appears to be cruising to re-election over Republican businessman Bill Simon. The most recent Field Poll found Mr. Davis with a comfortable 43 percent to 29 percent lead over Mr. Simon, a little-known political newcomer.

California voters "dislike him, but they don't fear him," said Allan Hoffenblum, former Republican consultant and now editor of the nonpartisan California Target Book. "It's his managerial style that makes him unpopular, not his positions on issues."

Mr. Davis has governed generally from the center, Mr. Hoffenblum said, which is popular with California voters. He has made education a major theme of his speeches and taken steps to tighten regulation of health care.

Various Field Polls also show state voters generally agree with Mr. Davis on hot-button issues such as abortion and gun regulation, while voters see Mr. Simon as more conservative on those issues.

The governor "is not asking the voters of California to marry him," campaign spokesman Roger Salazar said. "He's asking them to trust the direction he wants to lead the state."

Once voters focus on Mr. Simon's conservative politics, Mr. Salazar said, they will rally around Mr. Davis. The campaign backs up its confidence with its well-oiled fund-raising operation, which has already raked in at least $42 million.

Mr. Simon's campaign, however, seems gleeful at the recent troubles of the Democratic opponent. They hope to turn Mr. Simon's outsider image, and the fact that he is wealthy enough that he does not have to raise funds as relentlessly as Mr. Davis, into an advantage in November.

"Californians are not as liberal as Gray Davis would like them to be," Simon spokesman Jeff Flint said. "The voters are a lot smarter than Gray Davis is giving them credit for being."


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