Working behind the scenes, former President Clinton played a key role in the California governor’s race, helping persuade Gov. Gray Davis to launch a devastatingly effective series of ads during the Republican primary.
According to campaign insiders, it was Clinton who ultimately got Davis to launch the preemptive advertising blitz that helped torpedo former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan in the March race.
“We were out on a limb,” said one Davis consultant, who described an internal debate over the unconventional attack that aides were urging on Davis. The governor “needed some reassurance” and got it from Clinton during a series of discussions that culminated in a conference call in mid-January, the consultant said.
At the time, Riordan was pummeling Democrat Davis and looked to be his most dangerous opponent in the general election. “You can’t sit there and take it,” Clinton told the governor, according to two other people who participated in the 40-minute strategy session.
Clinton “was crucial in getting Gray to the point where he said, ‘Yes, we can do it,’ ” one Davis strategist said. “Gray was initially opposed, kind of hemming and hawing.”
About two weeks after the discussion, the governor launched the first attack ad in a $10-million wave that ultimately sank Riordan’s candidacy. The original notion was simply to soften Riordan up for the general election. The strategy ended up working better than anyone expected, delivering Davis his preferred Republican opponent: Los Angeles businessman Bill Simon Jr.
Simon, a political neophyte who stumbled through his first run for public office, lost to Davis this week, 47% to 42%.
Efforts to reach Clinton on Wednesday were unsuccessful. The governor’s chief strategist, Garry South, would say only that Davis and Clinton “talk regularly.”
“Clinton is a political junkie,” South said. “He’s also very knowledgeable about California politics.”
The former president has emerged as a sort of consultant-in-chief for Democrats across the country. He talks regularly with several potential Democratic presidential hopefuls, and is a key advisor to his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, the junior U.S. senator from New York.
In California, Clinton’s role went beyond urging Davis to run ads against Riordan; it also included suggestions about what those television spots might say.
The president used a similar attack strategy during his 1996 reelection campaign, when he broadcast ads that helped shape the race and negatively define his Republican opponent, then-Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, before Dole could afford much advertising of his own.
Now gone from office -- but not the political scene -- Clinton took a keen interest in the California race, according to Davis aides, and talked general strategy as well as diving into finer points of the campaign.
For instance, he helped conceive one of the ads that Davis ran in the primary against Riordan, a spot that accused the former Los Angeles mayor of gouging Northern California in the emergency sale of electricity from the city’s Department of Water and Power.
“Clinton said, ‘Man, you can nail him on energy,’ ” said a consultant involved in discussions between Davis and the former president, adding that Clinton’s counsel convinced Davis that “you could really hurt this guy.”
“That gave Gray even more confidence” in the risky primary strategy, the consultant said.
The president’s intervention was noteworthy given his warm relations with Riordan. The moderate former mayor visited the White House while in office and even crossed party lines to endorse Clinton’s reelection.
The president returned the favor by lending important behind-the-scenes help to Riordan in his 1997 reelection effort.
Just before election day in that race, Clinton arranged for Riordan to participate in a White House news conference announcing the award of transportation money to Los Angeles; Clinton hosted the event, giving Riordan a chance to share his spotlight at the expense of fellow Democrat Tom Hayden, Riordan’s rival in the mayor’s race.
In addition, the two always seemed to hit it off personally when they spent time together. Riordan stayed at the White House during the Clinton years and often spoke of his warm feelings toward the president.
“Clinton was a little conflicted,” said a Davis campaign insider.
“He knows Riordan pretty well. But he’s also an avid Democrat. He didn’t want to lose the governorship of California to any Republican -- even if it were Dick Riordan.”