Governor Gray Davis’ campaign to save his career is off to a negative, stumbling start. With the recall on the verge of qualifying for a fall ballot, and super-rich superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger on the verge of running, Davis needs better news than last weekend’s lightly attended kickoff rally in San Francisco and his grudging acknowledgment to the Weekly that any budget solution will defer $19 billion of the deficit to the future.

After advising county officials to take their time, Secretary of State Kevin Shelley reversed himself and told them to verify signatures as they come in. Since some 85 percent of the 1.65 million signatures appear to be valid, the recall is close to making the fall ballot. Davis insiders are still smarting about blowing more than a million scarce Davis dollars on a counter-recall petition drive. They wrongly believed that only 70 percent of the signatures would be valid.

The governor’s campaign is not off to a good start. Davis press secretary Steve Maviglio tried to explain away last week’s Weekly report of the money-seeking governor’s secret attendance at an Indian casino summit meeting by noting Davis does many things without telling the press and public. A not especially persuasive argument.

In another smear tactic that didn’t work, the anti-recall committee claimed hundreds of out-of-state felons gathered the signatures so the courts should toss them out. But the committee managed to come up with only two such individuals. Democratic strategist Bob Mulholland told the Weekly that Republicans would have to answer for any crimes that occurred while they were gathering signatures in various neighborhoods. But the two signature gatherers in question quickly switched sides and worked mainly for the Davis counter-petition. No word on whether the governor should answer for crimes in neighborhoods where they worked.

Davis declared he had “no complicity” with the lawsuit, despite its promotion by the anti-recall committee led by former top aides who’ve just left the administration. The main lawyer filing “as a concerned citizen” is Wiley Aitken, a prominent Democrat, former head of the California Trial Lawyers Association, and a Davis friend.

With the election likely, Davis appeared at his first anti-recall rally Saturday in San Francisco. Despite the presence of House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Democratic national chairman Terry McAuliffe, San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, and state Labor Federation chief Art Pulaski, it was an underwhelming affair attended by fewer than 200. The slight turnout brought back memories of that ominous moment last fall, when only 300 people showed up at a Davis rally in San Francisco the day before the election, a harbinger of the lack of interest from the Democratic base that made Davis’ re-election so close.

From Davis on down, speakers hammered on the theme that the recall is merely a right-wing plot and only conservatives will run to replace Davis. The strategy of having no Democrat on the replacement ballot will hand the governorship to a Republican if Davis loses. Ironically, according to congressional sources, Pelosi has expressed grave doubt about Davis and wanted a Democratic alternative but was prevailed upon to adopt the party line at the rally.

Afterward, McAuliffe said the recall would be defeated in large measure because only right-wingers would run to replace Davis. Asked by the Weekly what he would do if moderates Dick Riordan or Arnold Schwarzenegger ran, McAuliffe said it wouldn’t matter because the recall would be defeated. Reminded he had just said a conservatives-only replacement ballot would be a principal reason the recall would lose, McAuliffe backtracked, saying, “Well, we’ll just have to beat whichever one runs.”

That looks like Schwarzenegger now. Though he hasn’t reached a final decision, Schwarzenegger has a battle-tested campaign team ready to go and has signed over power of attorney to authorize the filing of his candidacy if the election is quickly called while he is out of the country.

But opponents, who may include wild cards such as commentator Arianna Huffington and even Davis’ former boss, Jerry Brown, may be the least of the governor’s concerns. He has been saying for weeks that the budget crisis was on the verge of solution. Now he is saying it may be a few more weeks. More worrisome still was his answer when the Weekly asked how much of the present problem would be put over to future years.

“I really can’t speculate on that,” Davis said at first. After a long second attempt in which he positioned himself in very detached terms, talking of “the lead role of the Senate” and likening his role to that of a mediator in the Middle East, the governor finally acknowledged it would be a very large number, “$17 billion,” adding $10.7 billion in deficit bonds to another $7.9 billion carryover. Which actually adds up to $18.6 billion. That number, which could go higher, is unlikely to impress angry voters after the latest state budget is finally cobbled together.

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