LOS ANGELES – California's congressional Democrats agreed Thursday to go with the theme for the Oct. 7 recall race proposed by Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante (search) — no on recall, yes for Bustamante.
"We will strongly express our firm opposition to this misguided effort between now and Election Day and we will strongly campaign against it," delegation chairwoman Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, said in a statement on behalf of the 33 House Democrats.
"In addition, we ask that after Californians vote 'no' and reject the recall, they cast a vote for Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante. We believe that whenever there is an election, Californians should always cast their vote."
The decision to tell voters to support Gov. Gray Davis but have a back-up plan demonstrates concerns that a Republican candidate — perhaps actor Arnold Schwarzenegger (search), who was on top of a statewide poll released Thursday — could take the top seat in the state.
Davis aides tried to cast the announcement in a positive light.
"We kind of look at it this way: 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.
But not all Democrats are toeing the line. The top vote-getter in the California Democratic Party, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (search), came out to campaign with Davis Thursday and reject 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," Feinstein said at a Los Angeles event with Davis in which the two called on Congress to make its 1994 ban on assault weapons permanent.
Top state Democrats urged Feinstein to run to replace Davis. She declined, despite not having had a close relationship with Davis since he compared her to hotel heiress and convicted tax evader Leona Helmsley (search) in a 1992 Democratic Senate primary television commercial. Davis lost that race to Feinstein and later told her the ad was "one of the worst mistakes of my life."
In Feinstein's place stepped Bustamante, whose backup plan gave Democrats some breathing room. Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer has said she will support the Bustamante approach.
Davis, too, has tried to make the most of the Bustamante campaign, suggesting that it could bring more anti-recall voters to the polls. He added the two candidates, who have never had a tight relationship, could even campaign together.
"It's entirely possible that we can find ways going forward to coordinate one another's activities," he said.
The delegation's decision 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.
"There may come a time where what may be in the best interests of the state is for one or more of these candidates to put their personal ambitions aside for what's in the best interest of the state," California Republican Party Chairman Duf Sundheim said Thursday in a televised interview.
A new statewide poll showed Schwarzenegger has taken back the lead over Bustamante 23-18 percent with none of the other 133 candidates topping 5 percent. The Public Policy Institute of California (search) poll also shows 58 percent support recalling Davis.
But Schwarzenegger, who held a news conference Wednesday in which he said natural disaster or terrorist strike are among the only reasons to raise taxes, found his campaign team garbling his tax message once again.
Next year's budget deficit is already projected at $8 billion. The state's credit rating is the lowest in the country. Campaign spokesman Sean Walsh told Fox News that Schwarzenegger could be forced to cut taxes in several places but raise them in others.
"We do not want new taxes, we don't need new taxes. But again, you have to look at the bottom line and the bottom line is not anywhere clear to being known now. It doesn't have to be that taxes either have to go up, per say, it can be a realignment or readjustment of the way the tax structure is currently construed."
Walsh later said that he left the wrong impression.
"Regrettably, in comments I made to Fox today, I left the impression that Arnold Schwarzenegger could consider increasing taxes based on economic conditions. I misspoke," Walsh said in a statement he read by phone to Fox News.
Simon, the GOP candidate who lost to Davis last November, seized on the issue, criticizing Schwarzenegger for refusing to take a no new taxes pledge.
"Today's comments by Schwarzenegger's spokesperson is just another confusing, contradictory signal sent by the Schwarzenegger camp about a very important issue: taxes," said Simon, who has promised to cut the size of government, cancel expensive energy contracts and repeal the state's new car tax in order to balance the budget.
Schwarzenegger's noted movie career also left room for Feinstein to criticize him, saying that he is sending the wrong message about guns.
"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.
Schwarzenegger has said he supports "sensible gun controls," including a ban on assault weapons.
For his part, Davis, who has held a series of events on gun control, the environment, and other key issues that appeal to core Democratic voters, borrowed a phrase used with great success by his adviser, former President Bill Clinton.
"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.
Fox News' Major Garrett and The Associated Press contributed to this report.