SAN FRANCISCO — California's congressional Democrats urged voters Thursday to oppose the recall but vote for Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, underscoring their fears that a Republican could unseat Gov. Gray Davis in the Oct. 7 election.
Meanwhile, Davis continued to fight for his job, appearing in Los Angeles with Sen. Dianne Feinstein to press for a permanent federal ban on assault weapons and then holding a "town hall" style meeting in a San Francisco suburb, where he got standing ovations from a crowd of black business leaders.
The unanimous move by the 33-member delegation was a formal acknowledgment that they can't count on the Democratic governor to survive the recall. Other core Davis supporters quickly followed suit Thursday — the California Teachers Association, for example, said it too would support the "no on recall, yes on Bustamante" campaign.
Bustamante welcomed the news about the delegation endorsement at a San Diego press conference late Thursday.
At a press conference in San Francisco, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said she called the embattled Davis the night before to warn him of their decision, which she called "an act of friendship."
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"The lieutenant governor's name is on the ballot, and he is the legitimate successor in the case of a vacancy," Pelosi said. "So while we strongly and vocally oppose the recall, we urge a yes vote on Bustamante."
Davis had sought to keep Democrats off the ballot. Once his lieutenant governor decided to run, Davis still hoped to keep Democrats united against the recall without throwing their support behind Bustamante.
"We consider it a victory. We're all focused on the same goal, and that's defeating the recall. There's just different strategies out there about how to go about it," said Gabriel Sanchez, spokesman for Davis' campaign committee.
Pelosi said the delegation's decision should boost Democratic turnout, particularly among Hispanic voters "energized" by the prospect of electing an Hispanic governor.
Davis and Bustamante have a frosty relationship and rarely speak, but the governor appears to be coming around to their need to combine forces, even possibly campaigning together at some point. "It's entirely possible that we can find ways going forward to coordinate one another's activities," Davis said Wednesday.
A new poll showed 58 percent of likely voters would recall Davis if the vote were held today, while 36 percent would vote "no." If the Democratic governor is removed, 23 percent would replace him with actor Arnold Schwarzenegger and 18 percent with Bustamante. None of the other 133 candidates topped 5 percent in the Public Policy Institute of California poll, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Sen. Barbara Boxer has joined all the Democratic representatives in backing the Bustamante strategy.
"I am not going to vote on the second part of the ballot. I am going to vote on the first part of the ballot and my vote is going to be to vote 'no' on the recall," the state's senior senator said.
The decision by the House members could increase pressure on Republicans to unite behind a single candidate. In addition to Schwarzenegger, former baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth, businessman Bill Simon and state Sen. Tom McClintock are on the ballot on the GOP side.
Those candidates have been under pressure from some leading party members to get out of the race, and the Republican who funded the recall, U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, already dropped out.
"Just like Darrell Issa a few weeks ago bowed out of the race, I'm confident that if other people are in that situation they'll do what's right for California," California Republican Party Chairman Duf Sundheim said Thursday on CNN.
Davis, meanwhile, has focused on key issues for Democratic voters in press conferences and "town hall" style meetings — the kind of forum popularized by former President Clinton as a way to speak directly to voters. In Los Angeles, Davis even tried on a famous Clinton aphorism for size.
"The fact is the entire nation is going through a tough time, with a tough economy — 3 million jobs have been lost — and people feel that here. I feel their pain, if you will," Davis said in describing the reasons for his sinking popularity.
Appearing later in Millbrae before the California Black Chamber of Commerce, Davis said the recall, like the Clinton impeachment and the vote counting debacle in Florida's 2000 presidential election, is part of a pattern of Republican interference in the democratic process,.
"Some Republicans in this country are determined to steal an election they can't win" Davis said, getting a warm response as he urged the audience to vote no on the recall and no on Proposition 54, which would bar the state from collecting racial data. He said his slogan is to "make it nice and vote no twice."
The federal assault weapons ban isn't something isn't something a governor has any control over, and even Schwarzenegger has said he supports a ban, but the issue does tend to mobilize Democrats, and it's an issue both Feinstein and Davis care deeply about.
"I fought in a war. And I can tell you straight out assault weapons are designed to do one thing: kill people and kill them quickly. So when the gun lobby says guns don't kill, people do, I beg to differ," Davis said.
Feinstein, meanwhile, criticized Schwarzenegger over the violence in his movies.
"I'm one that believes there is too much violence in movies and that violence begets violence, and that you become a role model for someone of lesser maturity out on the street to try to imitate what you do in the movies," she said. "So I don't consider those kinds of things terribly healthy for a society."
Davis and Feinstein have not had a close relationship since Davis angered Feinstein in the 1992 Democratic Senate primary by comparing her to hotel heiress and convicted tax evader Leona Helmsley. Davis lost that race to Feinstein and later told her the television ad was "one of the worst mistakes of my life."
But Feinstein has been one of the most vocal opponents of the recall and Davis has repeatedly expressed his gratitude.
In Fresno on Thursday, Simon pledged not to raise taxes as part of his plan to balance California's budget, a pledge Schwarzenegger refused to make. Simon, a social conservative who lost to Davis in November, also promised to cut the size of government, support Proposition 13 and repeal the car tax.
"The governor's chair has room for only one person. There's no room for committees or commissions," Simon said, taking a swipe at Schwarzenegger, who's added billionaire Warren Buffett and other big-name advisers to his campaign.
Aides said former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Simon's former boss when both worked for the U.S. Attorney's office in New York, would be campaigning for Simon.