- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 5, 2003

Leading California Democrats are reconsidering their party’s decision to stand by Gov. Gray Davis, with new polls showing a clear majority of Californians favor his recall.

It is a sign they are losing faith in Mr. Davis’ ability to survive the fall recall election and are becoming more skeptical about the prevailing strategy for keeping the governorship in their control.

Party leaders have vowed for weeks to keep prominent Democrats off the recall ballot to discourage voters from choosing to remove Mr. Davis, who has record-low approval numbers in the 20s.

But research by Pollster David Binder for the California Teachers Association shows 55 percent of Californians support the recall and 39 percent oppose it. Those numbers and this weekend’s deadline for contenders to declare their candidacies are unraveling the unity with which Democrats rallied behind Mr. Davis.

“I don’t know what they are thinking,” says Rep. Loretta Sanchez of state party leaders who continue to stand by their strategy. “We need a prominent Democrat in there so that person can excite the voter base and offer some insurance.”

The first part of the ballot will ask voters to decide whether Mr. Davis should remain in office. A second question asks them to select his replacement in the event he is recalled.

Not sure that the lack of a strong Democrat on the second part of the Oct. 7 ballot would deter voters from choosing to remove Mr. Davis on the first part, other members of the California congressional delegation are urging Sen. Dianne Feinstein to run.

Rep. Brad Sherman said the Democrats need a popular name in the race to excite their voter base.

“This thing is turnout-driven, and it is not enough to get the people who love Gray Davis to the polls,” Mr. Sherman said. “We have to get the ‘Feinsteinistas’ to the polls as well.”

The state’s other U.S. senator, Barbara Boxer, has also expressed doubt about the current strategy, saying it should be re-examined this week and that the party should keep its options open.

“I think we have to look at who’s on the ballot. We have to keep our options open as to who’s on the ballot,” she told the Associated Press.

Mrs. Sanchez said she would consider running if Mrs. Feinstein could not be persuaded to jump in.

“If nobody goes in, I may have to,” Mrs. Sanchez said, adding that she believes the key to beating the recall is turning out Democratic voters in what is expected to be a low-turnout election. Electorates are generally friendlier to Republicans if turnout is low.

“Gray, by his own admission, is not that exciting a candidate,” Mrs. Sanchez said.

Rep. Maxine Waters suggested that the party should abandon Mr. Davis altogether.

“If Dianne Feinstein is talked into getting onto the ballot, I hope Gray Davis would step down,” Mrs. Waters told the San Jose Mercury News.

The outspokenness among elected Democrats has not unnerved state party Chairman Art Torres, who reiterated his intent to “stick with only one candidate in the race, and that’s Gray Davis.”

“We come together at the end of the day, even though we march to different drummers,” Mr. Torres said. “But it has not been easy to bring everyone together.”

Polls show that voters are less apt to vote for Mr. Davis’ removal if there is no big-name Democrat on the ballot.

A survey of 700 likely voters last month for the Field Poll showed that, of those intending to vote for the governor’s ouster, 22 percent will put “a lot” of consideration into the field of candidates. Without a prominent Democrat in the race, 15 percent of all likely voters would be less inclined to remove Mr. Davis, according to the poll, which has a four-percentage-point margin of error.

Republican analyst Frank Luntz agreed that from the Democrats’ point of view, no party member should challenge Mr. Davis.

“If you put a well-known Democrat on the ballot, Davis is history, as dead as Francisco Franco,” said Mr. Luntz, who said Democrats’ best hope is for the Davis-recall question to fail.

Mr. Davis received two boosts yesterday, from labor unions and the national party.

AFL-CIO leaders yesterday voted in Chicago to oppose the recall and urge elected Democrats not to run in the Oct. 7 election. Separately, all nine declared Democratic presidential candidates signed an open letter against the recall effort, calling it a “costly Republican power grab.”

Mr. Sherman said his party must get past the “denial and anger” and pick a winning strategy, which would be to urge Californians to vote “no” on the governor’s recall and pick Mrs. Feinstein to replace the governor should he be recalled.

Republican strategists have said for weeks that the Democrats would not be able to keep leading members of their party out of the race as the deadline to file candidate papers approached.

“In California, parties really aren’t held together by loyalty,” said Jack Pitney, a professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College. “They are held together by self-interest. When it is in their interest to abandon ship, that is what they will do.”

Ralph Z. Hallow contributed to this report.

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