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Davis Drops Hot Issues as He Takes National Stage

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gov. Gray Davis, who made support for abortion rights and gun control cornerstones of his 1998 campaign, omits mention of those views when he is on a national stage trying to help elect more Democratic governors.

At the annual conference of the Democratic Governors Assn., Davis, the group’s chairman and a politician who is presumed to aspire to national office, set forth an agenda to elect Democratic candidates for governor that makes no mention of abortion or gun control.

The platform, called “real solutions that work for families,” focuses on apple pie issues. It proclaims that Democratic candidates for governor support improved public schools, crime prevention, access to health care, balanced budgets and tax cuts that “are fair to working families.” This delights other Democratic governors, some of whom oppose abortion and won endorsements from the National Rifle Assn.

“Our business here is to elect governors,” said Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont, where gun owners are a significant force. “It is not to set national policies.

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“If we have a candidate who is pro-life,” Dean said, “we’re going to support that candidate. If we want to win in a state like Mississippi or North Dakota, we are going to have to have candidates in the mainstream in those states. That may not be the same thing as being in the mainstream in California.”

In Sacramento, Davis has not tempered his support for abortion rights. However, after signing into law in his first year as governor several high profile bills aimed at restricting gun ownership, he declared a moratorium on additional measures to limit guns.

With a $100,000 contribution, the National Rifle Assn. was one of the major donors that helped the Democratic Governors Assn. garner a record $5.5 million at its annual fund-raising dinner Monday night, at Union Station in the nation’s capital. Davis did not have a hand in landing the NRA check. But he did raise more than $1 million to help elect Democratic governors this year and in 2002. That is the most ever by a member of the Democratic Governors Assn.

“In many states, you need to be pro-gun and pro-NRA in order to win,” said Randy Kozuch, a National Rifle Assn. lobbyist who attended Monday’s fund-raiser.

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Davis said Tuesday he is not softening his position on abortion or gun control. “My views have not and will not change,” he said. Rather, he said, he is advocating principles that all Democratic governors can embrace.

“Like any association of disparate people,” Davis said, “the governors’ association operates on a theory of unanimity, so we try to find common ground . . . and the principles articulated achieve that goal.”

At Monday night’s dinner, hosted by Davis and entertainer Rob Reiner, Davis went out of his way to tout gains made by Democrats in Southern states.

“The challenges we face differ,” Davis told the more than 1,000 donors. “But the qualities that Democratic governors bring to their tasks have a common thread. We are leaders of pragmatism as well as principles.”

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Davis’ political and fund-raising organization put on the fund-raiser. Garry South, Davis’ chief political strategist, helped shape the message nationally for Democratic gubernatorial candidates.

“I’m pro-life and I was endorsed by the NRA,” said Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, who took office last year.

“The litmus test [for Democratic candidates] is the ability to find solutions that affect people’s lives,” Musgrove said. “Education, good jobs . . . those are issues that make a difference to every family in Mississippi, and in every state.”

Democratic governors said the platform focusing on education, health care and job development, laid out in meetings, speeches and press events this week, is key to Democratic success in winning more gubernatorial seats nationally.

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“All of us will use that core agenda and talk about it across the country,” said Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, who was elected last year. "[Davis] did an outstanding job of laying out an agenda for the Democrat Party, for candidates of the future to look at, and for us to be able to go to our districts and talk about.”

While Democratic governors lauded the policies pushed by Davis, they were especially impressed by his ability to raise money. This year’s dinner brought in $700,000 more than last year’s Democratic governors’ dinner.

“You measure a chair in a lot of ways,” said Dean, of Vermont, “but the biggest one is how much you can do for other governors, and he has already done a huge amount.”

Democrats had feared their fund-raising would suffer, with President Clinton out of office. In each of his eight years in office, Clinton spoke at the Democratic Governors Assn. annual dinner, and was a fund-raising draw. The Republican Governors Assn., which also held its annual dinner Monday night, raised $7.5 million; Vice President Dick Cheney was the main speaker.

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Money raised at such events is earmarked to help finance gubernatorial candidates across the country. People in New Jersey and Virginia will elect governors this year. There will be three dozen campaigns in 2002. Democrats hold governors’ offices in 19 states, compared with 29 for Republicans, and two independents.

Governors from large states generally don’t become heavily involved in groups such as the one Davis heads. The contacts he is making and money he is raising for candidates probably would help if he decided to run for national office. But Davis scoffs at suggestions that he has such plans.

During the 1998 campaign, Davis repeatedly promised to sign legislation aimed at banning so-called assault weapons and attacked his opponent, former Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, for failing to adequately enforce gun control measures already on the books. In 1999, Davis signed bills to restrict ownership of military-style semiautomatic guns, limit gun purchases to one a month and ban the sale of cheap handguns that fail safety tests.

Since then, legislation to license gun owners has languished, though such a bill has sufficient votes to pass the Legislature, where Democrats hold large majorities. The bill stalled last year when Davis indicated that he would not sign it. Democratic lawmakers have introduced similar bills this year.

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A pro-gun lobbyist, speaking on condition that he not be identified, said Davis’ decision to put a stop on signing more gun bills might help soften gun owners’ opposition to him if he decides to run nationally. But, the lobbyist said, the actions he took in his first year would hinder any such candidacy in much of the country.

“Our membership is energized, and they remember,” the lobbyist said.


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