SOUTH GATE, Calif. – Concerned about "spoiler" candidates on the left and right, Gov. Gray Davis (search) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (search) have moved quickly in the last few days to portray the race as a head-to-head contest — a strategy some analysts say could backfire.
The governor and the actor got some help Saturday from Larry King, who invited them onto his show to debate one-on-one. But while Davis's campaign quickly accepted, the Republican front-runner's campaign insisted he has no intention of debating the Democrat.
"Gray Davis is taking a page from the desperate candidates' handbook. He knows he's behind," said Todd Harris, a spokesman for the Schwarzenegger campaign. "He knows he needs to do something to shake up the dynamics of this campaign."
The Davis and Schwarzenegger campaigns are looking to draw attention away from challengers within their own parties — Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante (search), shown to be in a statistical dead heat with Schwarzenegger in recent polls, and Republican state Sen. Tom McClintock (search), running several percentage points behind.
Many Democrats, against Davis' wishes, had encouraged Bustamante to run as an insurance candidate in case the governor loses the Oct. 7 recall vote. But some fear that Bustamante's candidacy could lead more people to vote yes on the recall and hand the governor's office to the Republicans. If a majority of California voters decide to oust Davis, whichever replacement candidate gets the most votes becomes governor.
"Part of the challenge here is making Democrats understand the choice they have before them is retaining Gov. Davis or electing Gov. Schwarzenegger," said Garry South, an adviser to Davis. "All these political geniuses who were adamant that we had to have a Democrat on the second part of the ballot are hoisting us on our own petard."
Bustamante parried questions Saturday about whether he was damaging the Democrats' chances of surviving the recall.
"Every speech I've ever done, every interview I've ever had, my commercials, all say 'no on the recall,' and we're going to keep doing that," Bustamante said, adding that he still hopes Davis will campaign with him and even endorse him.
That's not going to happen, the governor's advisers say. They believe they need to change the minds of about 10 percent of registered Democrats now inclined to vote yes on the recall — mostly in Southern California and in the Central Valley.
To do that, they say, they must convince voters Davis is the only viable Democratic option and keep the focus on Schwarzenegger. On Friday the Davis campaign aired its first attack ad, accusing the actor of getting his facts wrong, lacking experience and repeatedly failing to vote.
At a campaign appearance in Los Angeles on Saturday, Davis said: "I'm not attacking Arnold Schwarzenegger. I'm setting the record straight."
"Mr. Schwarzenegger is twisting the truth. He's tearing down California just to build himself up. I'm not going to stand for it," Davis said.
Later Saturday, Schwarzenegger's campaign criticized the ads.
"If they want to take this route, we will accelerate and intensify our response," said campaign spokesman Sean Walsh.
Schwarzenegger, who has aired ads attacking the governor for a week, has not personally called on McClintock to step down, but prominent Republicans who recently endorsed the action star urged the conservative legislator to do so.
McClintock has repeatedly rebuffed Republican entreaties to drop out rather than split the GOP vote.
"I would not be in this race if I did not believe I could win," McClintock said Friday. "I'm the one moving up and gaining very rapidly, from what I've been told."
Analysts say the two-man-show strategy could anger voters on both sides.
"When it comes to the voter and it comes to the average California spectator, it signifies arrogance," said K.B. Forbes, a Republican strategist. "It will provoke people to run away from Schwarzenegger, and Davis had the same problem in the last election because of his arrogance in ignoring the grassroots."
Gale Kaufman, a Democratic consultant, agreed.
"This is not a two-man race," she said. "Bustamante is still very much a force on the Democratic side, as is McClintock on the Republican side. What Schwarzenegger and Davis are doing is extremely risky."
Another risky decision for Davis involves a bill sitting on his desk that would require most California businesses to offer their workers health insurance.
Unions, which have given $2.7 million to the Davis campaign so far, lobbied hard for the measure approved by the Legislature two weeks ago, but business groups call it a job-killer. The governor may simply hold the bill until after the election.
That and other legislation has revived allegations that those who pay for Davis' campaigns get priority when it comes to state business.
Trial lawyers, donating nearly $700,000 to Davis, and Indian tribes, donating nearly $500,000, also are among those interested in pending bills and other state matters.
Peter Ragone, Davis's campaign spokesman, said the governor never allows campaign contributors to influence his decisions. "It doesn't happen. Anyone who says otherwise doesn't know what they are talking about," he said.
Candidates for Davis' job also have taken big money from special interests. Bustamante has accepted millions in campaign support from Indian gaming interests, and Schwarzenegger has received close to $7 million in contributions from real estate developers, high-tech companies and the entertainment industry.