LOS ANGELES – Former President Clinton (search) railed against the gubernatorial recall campaign Sunday in an effort to energize California Democrats who are increasingly hopeful they can defeat the attempt to oust Gov. Gray Davis (search).
Clinton, still a highly popular and polarizing figure nearly three years after leaving office, mixed Scripture with politics in his 40-minute address during a midmorning service at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, the city's oldest black congregation.
He repeated Democrats' theme that the Oct. 7 recall election is part of a right-wing power grab, and said removing Davis could scare future officeholders away from making difficult choices.
"Gray Davis and I have been friends for a long time, and I don't want this happening to him," Clinton said. "This is way bigger than him. It's you I'm worried about. It's California I worry about. I don't want you to become a laughingstock or the beginning of a circus in America where we throw people out for making tough decisions."
After a pause, he continued, "Don't do this. Don't do this," as the congregation erupted in applause.
Clinton is the first of several prominent national Democrats who have scheduled visits this week to campaign alongside Davis against the recall. The list includes Al Gore (search), Jesse Jackson (search) and several Democratic presidential candidates.
His appearance came a day after state Democrats held an emergency meeting to address their campaign strategy, re-emphasizing their opposition to the recall while endorsing Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante (search) to replace Davis in case voters decide to remove the governor.
Democrats have been buoyed by two recent developments: Bustamante and Davis, who have long had a sour relationship, appeared together Saturday for the first time since Bustamante announced his candidacy; and a Los Angeles Times poll found Californians almost evenly split on whether they wanted to recall Davis, after weeks of stronger support for his ouster.
Republicans, meanwhile, were struggling to come together behind a common message and a single candidate.
Their leading candidate, actor Arnold Schwarzenegger (search), appealed for Republicans to unite behind him during the state party convention Saturday in Los Angeles. His chief Republican rival, state Sen. Tom McClintock (search), has refused to drop out, saying he is in the race to the end.
Many Republicans have said they fear splitting GOP votes between two candidates will hand the governorship to Bustamante if voters oust Davis.
Schwarzenegger did not address the issue Sunday when he spoke to a firefighters' association in Orange County. Instead, he repeated a campaign theme that the state is on the wrong course and that he can set it straight with stronger leadership.
Davis has tried to show he is working to address the issues that prompted the recall. He signed an overdue budget that reduced the state's multibillion dollar deficit, and has convened town hall meetings to show he is in touch with Californians' concerns.
As Davis and Clinton arrived Sunday at the head of the church, the congregation rose and erupted in cheers.
Davis spoke first, saying "powerful forces" in Washington, D.C., were trying to divide the country along racial and ethnic lines.
He then introduced Clinton, calling him a true friend.
"Some days, I wake up and wish he were still president," Davis said to loud applause. "He will always be the president for us."