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Jewish World Review Oct. 9, 2003 / 13 Tishrei, 5764

Roger Simon

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The Nice Man vs. The Ice Man | LOS ANGELES — Gray Davis realized he was doomed when the focus group results came back. They showed just how much Californians really hated him.

The governor of California was facing a recall vote for the first time in the state's history. Some 31 times in the past, angry voters had circulated petitions to recall a governor — they tried to get rid of Ronald Reagan three times — but they had always failed to get enough signatures.

Now, however, some 1.6 million Californians had signed petitions and the recall of Gray Davis was on. So the Davis campaign, which was made up of some very talented people, went into high gear and immediately started doing focus groups in a suburb of San Francisco.

The results were awful. The joke turned out to be true: Gray Davis was a unifying force in California politics — everybody hated him.

People had different reasons: the energy crisis, the loss of jobs, the increase in the automobile tax. But it went way beyond issues. People didn't like Davis on a personal level.

He was cold, he was aloof, he was arrogant, he was distant. The list went on and on.

"We realized there was no silver bullet," a top Davis aide told me. "We realized there was no easy solution."

To make matters worse, the election was an odd one: It would not be Davis head-to-head with his opponents.

His 135 opponents would all run against each other, but Davis had to run against himself. He would have to convince people to vote no on the recall.

Negative campaigning, which was a specialty of his, might not necessarily work, therefore. Dirtying up Arnold Schwarzenegger, for instance, might lower Schwarzenegger's support, but it would not necessarily translate into a no vote on recall.

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It was very confusing. Which was when Davis realized he was doomed once again. At one focus group, the group was shown a slide-show explaining the two-part recall process. The presentation explained how there was Question One on the recall and Question Two on a replacement. Then, an expert gave a little talk about the recall and answered questions.

Then, a campaign aide asked the group about the recall. And the group was still confused. They still did not get it. And these were educated people who had just had the recall explained to them.

Which led to the third example of Davis' doom. Davis lives in a modest condominium in a modest condo project in Los Angeles. He gets his own mail each morning and often runs into the same elderly woman when she is getting hers.

A few weeks ago, she stopped him at the mailboxes and said, "Oh, governor, we are so upset at what they are trying to do to you, that we are not going to vote on Question One at all!"

Davis was horrified. He tried to explain to her that if she didn't vote no on Question One, he would probably be turned out of office.

The confusion was real. But that was not the real problem, however. The real problem was Davis, himself. How do you change a man's personality in a few weeks?

The campaign decided Davis would do a series of "town hall" meetings all over the state. He would let the people see the real him.

Which was, of course, a disaster. The real Gray Davis was defensive and not ready to admit he had done anything wrong. The bad economy was a national problem. The energy problem was caused by greedy utilities. The car tax had been mandated by his predecessor. And so on and so forth.

"People wanted to see him make a human connection," his aide told me.

But they didn't see it.

What people wanted was a nice man, but what they got was an ice man.

This was a man, after all, who eats the same food every day. He has a tofu shake for breakfast, a turkey sandwich on wheat for lunch and grilled salmon or grilled chicken for dinner. Every day. Without fail.

In other words, this is not a man to whom change comes easily.

Which, in the end, doomed him.

He was not likeable in a political era when being liked means everything.

"I'm like a baseball manager," Davis said. "If the team loses, you take the blame and sometimes you have to say good-bye."

This week, the voters of California said good-bye to him.

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