Looking For Votes, Not Love

California Gov. Gray Davis doesn't have his own Gulfstream jet. So while Arnold Schwarzenegger wings his way in comfort from one campaign event to the next, Davis pinballs around California on the Southwest Airlines shuttle. More often than not these days, says his wife Sharon, the other passengers burst into applause when she and the governor clamber aboard at the last minute. "It's pretty amazing," says California's First Lady. "People will pass up notes that say 'I support you.' I can tell you that never happened before." On a recent flight from Oakland, a young man yelled, "Hey Governor, I've got an idea for a campaign ad." Davis scooted across the aisle for an impromptu consultation.

It's hardly a scientific sample, but the Southwest Airlines focus group has figured out the next twist in the storyline of the mind-bending, on-again, off-again California recall--Gray Davis may have a fighting chance after all. His internal campaign polls show that support for the recall, after being lodged near 60 percent since August, has now dropped to 50 percent. A survey released Sunday by the Public Policy Insitute of California [PPIC] shows the recall still passing by a slight margin, but it also shows the gap between those saying "yes" and those saying "no" on the recall has narrowed by 11 points since August." And a controversial Los Angeles Times poll, which was widely ridiculed last week for skewing the data, also found support for the recall down to 50 percent. That's the magic number for Davis, since if half of voters say "no" on the recall, officials don't even bother counting the ballots on who should replace him. It means we may, in fact, never know how Arnold or Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante or Republican state Sen. Tom McClintock or any of the other 133 would-be governors would have fared with the voters. The ballots could end up in a heap in some Smithsonian exhibit.

Have Californians suddenly fallen in love with their embattled governor? Hardly. Sunday's PPIC poll shows that 65 percent of Californians still disapprove of his job performance. But there is a pervasive sense that, despite the media clamor, the replacement field isn't much better. Schwarzenegger, a Republican, and Bustamante, a Democrat, are virtually tied, but neither has moved for weeks. McClintock has steadily drained conservative votes from Schwarzenegger, but is unlikely to appeal to the Democrats any candidate in California needs to win. "It's kind of like someone who decides to leave their spouse," says one Davis adviser. "They get out there and start dating and all of a sudden, the husband doesn't look so bad after all."

Davis got an unanticipated boost this past week from a panel of federal judges in San Francisco, who ruled that the Oct. 7 election should be postponed --perhaps until March-- because of concerns that voters using punch-card ballots could be disenfranchised. The ruling invoked the Supreme Court's finding in Bush v. Gore no fewer than a dozen times, raising the ghost of Florida for Democrats and Republicans alike, and adding tumult to a race that, it seems, could hardly take another jolt. That ruling could be overturned within days--judges meet Monday to hear appeals--but the court's intervention has given Democrats a rallying cry that they hope will give Davis the boost he needs to hang on to his job.As he made his way around the state in recent days with a revolving roster of Democratic stars, including Bill Clinton, Jesse Jackson, John Kerry and Al Gore (the party's poster child for GOP trickery) the normally inarticulate Davis came up with the attack line linking his misfortunes to those of a long line of Democratic martyrs. "This is all about Republican overreaching," he told a crowd at a San Francisco union hall on Friday afternoon. "They tried to impeach Clinton by overreaching, they couldn't win Florida in the last presidential election fair and square, so they overreached, now they want to steal California in time for the presidential election of 2004."

Republican truth squads will no doubt gnaw that narrative to pieces, but Davis has finally found a way to energize the liberal Democratic base, which has long been suspicious of his centrist policies. With 1.3 million more Democrats than Republicans in California, Davis's partisan play comes as no great shock. He's played to Latinos with a bill that would grant drivers' licenses to illegal immigrants. Black voters, the most dependable Democrats, haven't seen so much of Gray Davis in years. In the past week, he's done five events in the black communities of L.A. and the Bay Area, appearing in churches, schools and voting centers, and railing against the recall, as well as a controversial ballot initiative, Proposition 54, that would prevent the state from gathering racial or ethnic data. "They expect a poor white guy to follow Jesse Jackson?" he mock kvetched at a Baptist church in San Francisco last week, after rafter-raising introductions by Jackson and two well-known local black ministers. These get-togethers aren't always pleasant: Davis was grilled about his lack of support for black community at a chilly town hall meeting in South L.A. recently. But he got points for taking the heat, and earned some grudging support. "I'm against the recall, but it's not because I love Gov. Davis," says L.A. community activist Najee Ali, one of those who asked Davis questions.

Davis and his advisers believe that voters want to know that he's been humbled by the recall, and they think there's a positive benefit to seeing voters get angry with him in the televised town halls he now holds twice each week. "Wrapped up in the recall is a venting of the anger towards him," says his media adviser, David Doak. "They are pissed off with him." But Davis benefits as voters concentrate on the alternatives, even Schwarzenegger. "When this thing narrows down to a choice between him or someone else, the question changes from, 'Are you mad at Gray Davis?' to 'How mad are you at him?'" says Doak. "Are you mad enough at him to take a flier on Arnold Schwarzenegger? Are you mad enough to take a flier on Tom McClintock, or Cruz Bustamente or [independent] Arianna Huffington or [the Green Party's] Peter Camejo?" James Granucci, a Sacramento attorney who attended a Gray Davis town hall last week is probably typical of many voters. A Republican, Granucci says he used to support the recall but now he's on the fence. "I'm not persuaded that another candidate could do better," says Granucci, who supported Republican Peter Ueberroth until he dropped out two weeks ago. "If I have to choose between Cruz Bustamante and Arnold, I might just want Davis to finish his term."

The praise is so faint you have to strain to hear it. But Gray Davis isn't looking for love--just enough votes to keep his job.