Election Strategy Challenges Democratic Party Unity in California

A Los Angeles Times poll released Wednesday is likely to compound further animosity that has already bubbled to the surface between Gov. Gray Davis (searchand Lt. Gov Cruz Bustamante (search) over next week's gubernatorial recall election.

The poll, taken after the candidates seeking to replace Davis met in a debate last week, showed support for the recall growing, but support for Davis' Democratic replacement, Bustamante, shrinking.

The news could only add to disconnect among party operatives debating over whether to approach the recall with the intent to save Davis at any cost versus whether to give greater backing to Bustamante, whom Davis has chosen not to support as the Democratic alternative to himself.

While much of the spat between the campaigns was conducted behind closed doors Tuesday, accusations from each that the other was dragging down the party threatened to undermine party unity in the drive to keep control of the governor's office.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe (search) arrived on the scene Tuesday, pleading for the party to stay together.

"I want every single Democrat in the state, when you go to vote next week, you go vote no on recall. I don't want to hear one single Democrat voting yes on recall," McAuliffe said.

But polls suggested a sizable number of Democrats were considering just that, prompting the Davis team to suggest privately that Bustamante withdraw from the race. Democratic sources told Fox News that Davis officials told top Democratic donors on Tuesday that Bustamante's dropping out of the race would lift Davis' numbers by 10 points. Those same sources said most Democratic donors ignored the pitch, primarily because they saw Bustamante as the only way to draw Latino voters to the polls and increase overall Democratic turnout.

But others have said that Democratic officials have grown frustrated with Bustamante's campaign -- which has been rocked by campaign finance violations -- and have turned more toward a "save Davis" strategy.

McAuliffe has opposed any Democrat running on the replacement ballot and has thrown heavy support to Davis, moves that have relegated Bustamante to second-tier status.

"I support the lieutenant governor out here, he is going to win on question two. It's going to be a great day for us. We win on question one -- no takes the vote -- and Cruz will get the most votes on question two," he said.

The two-part ballot separates Davis from the rest of the pack, leaving him alone to face the question of whether he should be ousted. On the second part of the ballot, voters, even those who choose to keep Davis in place, can select a possible replacement from among 135 candidates.

With that scenario in mind, Bustamante has been running on the slogan of "Vote no on recall, yes on Bustamante."

His campaign manager told Fox News on Tuesday that Bustamante represents the "best hope for Democrats" and will boost Latino turnout.

"We're the best hope for the Democrats on the second part of the ballot. It would be irresponsible to quit now. Millions of Latino voters expect him to be governor," Richie Ross said.

Ross said Bustamante "had hoped" Davis would endorse Bustamante on the replacement ballot and was disppointed he won't. He added that Davis was instead indirectly blocking Bustamante's efforts to raise campaign contributions and that he saw a concerted strategy by the Davis team to discredit the Bustamante campaign and portray it as a non-factor.

"I know what they're saying and all is fair in love and war, but that doesn't change the reality," Ross said. "We're still in this race."

Bustamante raised $950,000 over the past two days and had enough money to pay for television spots to air on Sunday and Monday. The campaign was trying to muster up the cash to pay for Bustamante spots on Friday and Saturday, Ross said.

"I'm buying TV spots backward," Ross said. "I'm on track but the fund-raising has been tough. We have to do it under the $21,200 contribution limit and we don't have access to the institutional Democratic donors like Davis does. We can't get it from the major guys so we're raising it from non-traditional sources. That's been a struggle."

Davis is not bound by campaign finance laws that went into effect at the beginning of the year. The rest of the candidates have had to comply with individual contribution limits of $21,200.

If Bustamante cannot raise the money to keep the ads on the air, his campaign may effectively vanish in the closing days, ceding even more air space to the battle between Davis and GOP front-runner Arnold Schwarzenegger (search).

The Bustamante campaign's internal polling showed the race very close with Schwarzenegger. The latest overnight tracking had the candidates tied at 31 percent. The Bustamante sample is based on a 46 percent Democratic turnout and a 43 percent Republican turnout.

"We're not getting out, there's no thought of doing that," Bustamante adviser Tony Coelho told Fox News. "We think we can still win this. Our internal polls show the race with Arnold very close. There's no reason at all to get out."

Several top Democratic strategists, however, said it appeared Bustamante's campaign has already effectively shut down. Bustamante has appeared in public only once since Saturday before making an about-face on Tuesday and attending a hand-shaking event in Los Angeles.

"He's not doing any campaigning, he's pulling ads off the air, he sees his poll numbers dipping and it looks like he's doing the bare minimum," Democratic strategist Harvey Englander told Fox News.

Coelho said Bustamante was "working the phones" to raise money, activity Coelho told Fox News was far more important "than appearing in public in front of you guys."

Another Democratic strategist, Darry Sragow, told Fox News that Davis' decision not to endorse Bustamante reflected the governor's calculation that Bustamante can't defeat Schwarzenegger on the replacement ballot and the only way Democrats can retain the governorship is for him to win the recall race.

On a similar front, Independent candidate Arianna Huffington (search) dropped out of California's gubernatorial recall race Tuesday night and threw her support behind the Democrats in an effort to keep the governorship from front-runner Schwarzenegger's hands.

While Huffington was not expected to heap praise on Davis, Democratic strategists said they expected Huffington to side with Davis to stop Schwarzenegger, whom Huffington has attacked with more vigor than any other candidate.

"This is nothing personal. The problem is that Arnold is running a campaign pretending to be an independent ... when, in fact, he is a Bush Republican," Huffington told Fox News. "The last thing this state needs is more disastrous economic policies."

She added, "This about preventing a Republican hijacking of the state."

Huffington, who was one of Gray Davis's harshest critics on the campaign trail, urged her supporters to vote against the effort to remove the Democratic governor as "the only way now to defeat Arnold Schwarzenegger."

The Los Angeles Times poll released Wednesday showed Huffington garnering less than a half percent of the vote. Schwarzenegger would earn 40 percent of the vote, according to the survey. comapred to Bustamante's 32 percent, with McClintock getting 15 percent. Davis would be recalled by 56 percent of voters.