Calif.'s Davis Takes On Bush

Gov. Gray Davis smiles at the beginning of the California Gubanatorial Debate in Walnut Creek, Calif., Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2003. The first debate among the leading candidates to replace Gov. Gray Davis in the historic recall election Wednesday puts the spotlight _ and the pressure _ on front-runners Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger. AP

Democratic leaders threw some support to California's beleaguered governor Saturday, giving him the national stage to criticize the economic policies of the Bush Administration in a weekly radio address.

Gov. Gray Davis, facing a recall election next month, was chosen by Democratic governors to give the response to the president's weekly speech. He said the nation is in much the same position it was 12 years ago -- jobs being lost and the federal government running up a deficit.

"Republicans in power have refused to learn from their mistakes," Davis said. "Once again, key investments are not being made in education and infrastructure. To be blunt: There's a vacuum of national leadership that is sucking up American jobs at alarming rate."

Davis then plugged his own administration by highlighting some of California's initiatives to stimulate the economy.

Shortly after the address, the governor was scheduled to appear at a rally with former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, one of the leading Democratic candidates to challenge Mr. Bush next year.

That Davis was chosen to give the rebuttal as he faces a recall vote is an important signal to Democrats in California and across the nation, observers say. Party leaders have been torn over whether to put resources into the Davis campaign to fight the recall or into the top Democratic replacement candidate, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante.

Davis had sought to keep the party behind him and other well-known Democrats out of the recall election because that would provide him the best opportunity to defeat the recall. But many party leaders thought the strategy risky and urged Bustamante to step in as an alternative.

In recent weeks, Bustamante's standing in the polls have improved so much there was some talk among pundits that the Democrats might divert the lion's share of the resources from Davis and give it to Bustamante.

The selection of Davis for the radio address affirms party support for him, Ann Crigler, director of Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.

"There's a number of other people they could have asked to do this," she said.

She said the address itself may not be heard by that many people, especially on a Saturday morning, but it elevates Davis' profile at a critical time.

"It's a sign that Democrats are supportive and Democrats are very important in California," she said.

Some are skeptical, such as Mark Petracca, a political science professor at the University of California, Irvine, who called the gesture a "little bit of a big deal" to give Davis a radio address "that virtually no one listens to."

"Is it an indication of confidence or is it an indication of panic?" Petracca asked. "It's possible that it's neither panic nor confidence. It's what the party can do. It's a freebie."

This is the second time this year that Davis has given the radio rebuttal to Mr. Bush. The last was in March when the governor called for more federal funding of homeland security programs now being paid for by state and local governments.

Davis' speech did not mention the recall campaign, but it did touch on his administration's efforts in California.

"In California, we're pushing hard to create new jobs now and to stimulate our economy through our Build California initiative," Davis said. "We're accelerating the flow of billions of dollars of bond money into our economy. We're building freeway and public transit projects one full year head of schedule, creating thousands of jobs now.

"In short, the nation's governors are doing more with less and still balancing their books."

Davis' speech followed his high-profile signing of a bill Friday that will allow undocumented immigrants in California to get a driver's license. Last year, Davis had vetoed a tougher bill, saying he was concerned about security following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Critics of the legislation accused Davis of pandering to Hispanics, who make up about a third of the population and 16 percent of voters, as he tries to save his job. They also knocked the governor for signing a bill that didn't contain features he demanded earlier, such as requirements that applicants pass criminal background checks.

"As you know, our own governor was vividly against this a few months ago," Republican recall candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger said. "Now it's election time - of course everything changes."

Schwarzenegger said he would work to repeal the law if Davis is recalled in the Oct. 7 election and voters chose the actor to replace him.

A group of conservative Republicans, including recall candidate Sen. Tom McClintock, planned to launch a ballot initiative to overturn the law, said Jeff Evans, a spokesman for a group called Save Our License.
  • Dan Collins

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