- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 12, 2003

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California Democrats, momentarily stunned by the ferocity of the effort to recall Gov. Gray Davis, have started a political blitzkrieg aimed at discrediting both the recall and any Republican challengers.

Rejecting suggestions that they push for Mr. Davis’ resignation, or hedge their bets by running an alternative candidate as a fallback, Democrats are planning to throw everything they have at defeating the recall — at least for now.

If the unpopular Mr. Davis, whose approval rating sits in the low 20s, continues to sink in the polls, or if the recall appears unstoppable, that strategy could take an abrupt about-face, say analysts.

“The initial calculation is that having Gray Davis in office is best for the Democratic Party, but that could change,” said Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont-McKenna College. “In the still of the night, a lot of Democrats are lying awake contemplating a Gray-less Sacramento.”

Before that happens, however, the recall campaign could get ugly as Democrats, whose grip on state politics has never been stronger, take aim at would-be usurpers. Their first target: Rep. Darrell Issa, the recall campaign’s financial backer and the only announced Republican candidate for governor.

Recall opponents are now spinning the campaign as a choice between Mr. Davis and Mr. Issa, who became the focus of devastating negative attacks this month after word surfaced of his brushes with the law.

As a college student, he paid a $100 fine for illegal handgun possession and was arrested, but not convicted, for stealing a car as a teenager. Later, he reportedly brought a gun to a business meeting, after which he famously told the Los Angeles Times, “Shots were never fired.”

The California Voter Project is already running radio ads describing Mr. Issa as “dangerous.” On its “Stop Issa” Web site, the group shows a photo of a man pointing a gun with the caption, “Don’t let Darrell Issa hijack California’s election process.”

The intensity of the attacks on Mr. Issa could serve the dual purpose of discouraging other Republicans from tossing their hats into the ring.

Potential Republican candidates include state Rep. Tom McClintock, former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, actor Arnold Schwarzenegger and businessman Bill Simon, who lost to Mr. Davis in 2002.

“They’re not observing the Geneva Convention on this one, and that might be what keeps Arnold out of it,” Mr. Pitney said. “There are all kinds of things they could throw at him — his father’s Nazi Party membership card is posted on the Web.”

But state Republican activists believe that Mr. Davis’ unpopularity gives them a unique opportunity to oust him from office. They are trying to use California’s century-old recall law. Under California law, organizers need to gather just fewer than 900,000 signatures out of 15 million registered voters to trigger a recall.

When not criticizing Mr. Issa, recall opponents are playing the role of fiscal conservatives, pointing out that the cost of the election could top $30 million. They also argue that the recall could hurt the state’s bond rating, already teetering under the weight of a $38 billion deficit.

Davis loyalists also plan to trot out a Who’s Who of Democratic Party luminaries, business leaders and other high-profile activists opposed to the recall. On Wednesday, former Clinton Secretary of State Warren Christopher led a panel of business and labor leaders who announced their opposition, citing the destabilizing effect a successful recall effort could have on the state’s economy.

Recall organizers plan to counter with a $14 million campaign of their own, but they won’t receive much help from national Republicans. While the state Republican Party plans to pitch in with a get-out-the-vote effort, the White House hasn’t endorsed the recall, the prevailing wisdom being that President Bush has a better shot of winning California in the 2004 election with a weak Democratic governor in office.

“This campaign will be Gray Davis with the entire support of the Democratic Party — from the Gores to the Clintons to the union leaders — against [a few Republicans] without any major national Republicans getting involved,” said Bob Mulholland, strategist for the state Democratic Party.

While the Democratic attacks could derail Mr. Issa’s gubernatorial ambitions, recall organizers say they shouldn’t affect what voters think about Mr. Davis. A Los Angeles Times poll released last week found that 51 percent of voters wanted to see Mr. Davis out of office.

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