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Near Total Recall

With strategy after strategy having failed for Governor Gray Davis, judgment day is fast approaching. Now claiming 1.3 million signatures, recall organizers should have enough to force a special election this fall — a prospect made all the more ominous by the rousing opening of Terminator 3, the thriller starring a politically ambitious actor who seems more willing all the time to take his act to Sacramento.

Like a retreating army falling back to a new line of defenses, the Davis forces have tried one failing plan after another. The first strategy, blocking professional signature gatherers from working for the recall, failed. The second strategy, using a pro-Davis petition drive to hire workers away from the recall, failed. The third strategy, to disrupt the recall, was a loser, too. It was laid out in a memo, on the anti-recall committee Web site, that instructed Davis backers to tell store managers signature gatherers were harassing customers.

Now the Davis camp is using legal machinations to block or delay the recall. Party wheel horse Kevin Shelley, the secretary of state, has told county elections officials they can take their time in verifying signatures. If they do, the recall might be delayed till the March presidential primary — better timing for Davis. But if enough counties ignore Shelley, as most seem willing to, and especially if they find that random sampling of the signatures shows a high validity rate, that gambit won’t work, either.

Then there are the stratagems of Democratic solidarity and of demonizing the opposition. “We’ll have all the presidential candidates and Bill Clinton and the statewide electeds campaigning against this,” says Democratic strategist Bob Mulholland. They want no Democrat on the ballot to replace Davis if he loses.

Demonization is a familiar Davis technique. But the tactic, used against Republicans Dick Riordan and Bill Simon Jr., depressed voter turnout, making Davis himself look more vulnerable when the budget storm hit. So why not make a positive case for Davis?

“Positive won’t work for us,” says a Davis adviser. L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky put it more pithily when asked on a cable show why Davis wasn’t stumping for his budget. “If he says it, 80 percent won’t believe it.”

Thus it’s back to demonization, and the recall’s main funder, Congressman Darrell Issa, is the first target. The overzealous Davis forces, in a video, are suggesting Issa links to Nazis, because an Issa campaign worker manned a table and handed out brochures at the same gun show as a group selling Nazi memorabilia.

Are they really trying to claim that Issa is a Nazi?

“No,” said anti-recall spokesman Carroll Wills.

A neo-Nazi? “No.”

A Nazi sympathizer? “No.”

The point is to slime Issa with the bad company that Issa’s 1998 Senate campaign purportedly kept. But there were thousands of people at the gun show, Issa’s table was nowhere near the Nazi memorabilia, and police and military recruiters also had tables.

Then there was the video that scathingly pinned Issa with alleged car thefts in his past. The video was used to whip up a boisterous state Democratic board meeting in Oakland late last month. Issa has never been convicted of car theft, nor did charges even go to trial. This stuff may stop Issa from being governor; it won’t save Davis — not from the likes of the Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“We’ll have the tabloids go after him,” a top Democratic strategist says upliftingly.

 

Democratic sources who usually divulge their private polling numbers with the Weekly — even if the numbers aren’t good — now say they know nothing. Republicans are more forthcoming, citing one private poll showing Davis losing, 54 percent to 37 percent, and another with even worse numbers for Davis.

A California Teachers Association poll indicates that the strategy of demonizing the recall as a right-wing plot could work if the replacement candidates are right-wingers — like Issa and 2002 Republican nominee Simon. But not if the field includes moderates Schwarzenegger or ex–L.A. Mayor Riordan, along with already-declared Green Party banner carrier Peter Camejo. Riordan and Schwarzenegger have decided, say top Republican strategists, that only one of them would run. Riordan essentially endorsed Schwarzenegger last month on Fox News, as did ex-Governor Pete Wilson in a newspaper interview.

A Los Angeles Times poll over the weekend finally followed others in showing the recall leading, 51 percent to 42 percent. Had it sampled registered voters rather than likely voters, the Times poll would look more like the Republican polls. The Times opposes the recall and for months, unlike most newspapers, would not cover it. The Times poll may artificially boost Senator Dianne Feinstein (who says she won’t run). She’s the Democrats’ best hope if Davis is too far gone.

And what of Schwarzenegger, who has cleverly spurred the recall during splashy media appearances for T3, which is off to a smashing start? Schwarzenegger was looking almost presidential with his July 4 morale-boosting (and film-promoting) visit to the troops in Iraq. He can never be president, because he was born in Austria, but his gibes at California’s leadership crisis make it clear that he’s deciding whether to go for T4 or G1. Behind the scenes, his people are conducting research and lining up a media consultant.