INTERSTATE 5 is not the road to Damascus. But don't tell that to Gray Davis. He wants Californians to believe he's their St. Paul--a convert who shouldn't be recalled because he's seen the light.
The biblical analogy is irresistible. Since he came to the realization that he was in the fight of his political life, Davis finally admits that he once sinned: yes, too slow to react to the state's electricity crisis; yes, too out of touch with the citizenry; but still entirely deserving of a second chance.
And he's been anything but laid back in trying to connect with the laity.
During last night's candidates' forum in Walnut Creek, for example, the governor referred to his "strong faith in God" as seeing him through the ordeal of recall.
It wasn't the first time this week that Davis played the faith card. On Labor Day, he attended Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. Davis, a Roman Catholic, sat in the front row, and listened intently as Bishop Gavino Zavala may or may not have insulted him. "As for the upcoming recall election," the Bishop said, "most commentators agree that it's only a consequence of decades of dysfunction of political parties and leaders who seemingly care more about doing the bidding of wealthy contributors than stopping the problems that confront working people."
That was followed by an interview with NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, where Davis and his wife, Sharon, neatly steered the conversation to their spirituality. Here's the transcript:
BROKAW: This is a very high profile trial. You're having to go through this in a very public fashion.
SHARON DAVIS: Uh-huh.
BROKAW: Do you have political heroes that you thought about in the past that help you get through the day? If so, who are they?
GRAY DAVIS: Well, we have great faith in God. My wife brought me back to the church. And she's just a blessing. I read about all the grief that Truman took. I'm reading the Three Roosevelts now. I mean, all leaders have gone through difficult times. And they've had to find the inner strength and peace and forcefulness--to pursue the policies--they felt were best for the people they represented. So, I do take comfort and inspiration . . .
SHARON DAVIS: Uh-huh.
GRAY DAVIS: . . . from those biographies.
IRONICALLY, it wasn't so long ago that Davis found religion to be a troublesome matter. Last Christmas, a Sacramento priest who operates a Catholic children's home barred the governor from setting foot on the property because of his pro-choice views. In February, Roman Catholic Bishop William Weigand challenged Davis to adopt the Vatican's pro-life position and said the governor shouldn't receive communion until he had "a change of heart."
Why is Davis suddenly and so strongly embracing his faith? Because he realizes that unless he makes himself more likable and more in sync with the average voter, all the right-wing bashing in the world won't save him from the humiliation of becoming the first recalled governor in 80 years.
Here's what Californians can expect from their governor over the next five weeks:
*More townhall appearances such as the one last week in the Bay Area, where an earnest and animated Davis tried to convince folks he was Ward and June Cleaver's long-lost son (a tough sell for a guy who oozes Eddie Haskell): "I grew up in the '50s when they taught you to keep your feelings to yourself, now I am in the world of Oprah and Jerry Springer. It is tough. Here is this guy in the '50s trying to live in the world in 2000. All I can say is we are doing the best we can."
*More admissions from his wife that she married a swell guy: "Well, the--the private Gray Davis is actually very warm," Sharon told Brokaw. "He's engaging. We do have a lot of friends. We've been--I read in the newspaper we don't have any friends. And I find that just shocking. Because I think the people we see on weekends that we go to films with, or have dinner with, would find it shocking, too. He's portrayed as being a loner. And yet, he surrounds himself with an intelligent group of advisors, who he spends a lot of time, interacted with."
Davis is counting on a little charm--and a lot of help from a higher being: Dianne Feinstein.
IN THE RECALL SOAP OPERA, Feinstein is the Democrats' matron saint of lost causes. To save Davis, she's taken it upon herself to attack Arnold Schwarzenegger over assault weapons and movie violence. In an affront to Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, she's told Democrats to vote against recall and ignore the second half of the October 7 ballot. Feinstein has even filmed TV ads to turn out the no-on-recall vote.
And somewhere along the line, she put her bitterness in check.
Eleven years ago, during the Democrats' U.S. Senate primary, Davis ran an ad comparing his rival, Feinstein (then facing a lawsuit for improperly reporting campaign donations), to Leona "Queen of Mean" Helmsley. "Helmsley blames her servants for the felony. Feinstein blames her staff for the lawsuit," the Davis ad said. "Helmsley's in jail. Feinstein wants to be a senator."
Or maybe Feinstein's not entirely over that slap. Try parsing what she says in her anti-recall ads:
The first TV spot (titled "Keep Working"): "I hope you'll vote against this recall. With 135 candidates, someone could win with 15 percent of the vote. Will they be qualified? Where will they stand on the issues? What will the uncertainty do to our economy? This recall is bad for California. The governor deserves the chance to keep working on issues we care about: education, health care, important new privacy legislation. On the recall, just say no. On the recall, just say no."
The second spot (titled "Outcome"): "This governor was reelected just last November. Within three months, this recall effort began. It was started by people who were unhappy with the results of a legitimate election, in which 8 million Californians voted. It's producing uncertainty and instability. It's bad for the economy, bad for jobs and bad for California. That's why I'm voting no. I hope you will, too."
Feinstein's math is squirrelly: 8 million Californians didn't vote last November; the top vote-getter on the second half of the ballot will receive far more than 15 percent. But more notably, she doesn't mention Davis by name. Such is the governor's weakened state: He's reduced to third-person status, making amends with politicians he's insulted and voter's he's ignored.
It's recall's Hail Mary. Gray Davis's hopes rest on a right wing and his prayers.
Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he follows California and national politics.