Somehow, the Biltmore honchos knew the jig was up for Gray Davis. Last week, when the media and the governor’s staff assembled for an election-night-planning walk-through, the hotel’s grand Crystal Ballroom was off-limits. Can’t come in, they were told. The room was being used by arts educators.

Arts educators?

The governor’s people had to cool their heels and then slink inside during a midday break to go over logistics, as waiters passed through laying down cutlery and napkins for something more important all of a sudden than the gathering of the incumbent governor.

The day before, at a “No on Recall” rally in Hollywood, Davis was not even the star attraction. Most of the signs were for General Wesley Clark, the new Democratic contender who’d decided to try on California for size. Sure, he talked up fellow Vietnam vet Davis — “ a real, live action hero” — and talked down the recall, but most observers observed Clark. Davis seemed whiter, more haggard than usual, under pinkish TV makeup. He seemed a man who didn’t quite understand what was happening to him, a man left off balance by political ground shifting remorselessly beneath his feet, a person making a heartfelt appeal to a public who gave his heart no credence.

“I believe Gray stayed Gray a little too long,” said 74-year-old Stan Sharpe, a recall opponent, at the Hollywood rally.

“Too little, too late,” shrugged 35-year-old contractor Dena White, who carried a handmade “Stop the Car Tax” sign.

More fatal was the dearth of support from the likes of consumer advocate Harvey Rosenfield, who recounted in an interview the latest instance of Davis’ favoritism to an insurance company that had donated campaign money. “I voted for the recall — the guy was no good,” said Rosenfield, who also noted something larger going on. “People are so mad about government that they’re expressing themselves by recalling Davis. The people in the Legislature need to understand this is way beyond Davis. It’s also them.”

By midday Tuesday, Davis realized he would come up short. Said one loyal staffer: “The governor is a smart man.” And, against all expectations, a witty man, too. At the rally with Clark, Davis had noted that his state was inevitably affected by the national recession: “Last time I looked, California was still attached to America,” he said wryly. In his election-night farewell, he turned to his tearful wife, saying, “This is a no-cry zone. We can cry later tonight.”

He wore a relaxed, friendly mien that could have won him more voter affection if it’d been displayed sooner and more often. Instead of the wound-up governor who insisted that it was legislators’ duty to implement his vision, this gracious loser immediately thanked voters “for having the wisdom to defeat Proposition 54,” the initiative that would have hampered research targeting racial bias. And he waved away talk of a revenge recall against Schwarzenegger. Party stalwarts cheered his goodbye, his final “God bless you and God bless this great state,” but when he turned to add a few words — “We’ll have better nights ahead” — the crowd was already turning away and dispersing.

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