In California, Gray Leads By Default

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Midway through a monotone recitation of his accomplishments to Hispanic conventioneers in Los Angeles last Friday, Governor Gray Davis, his blue suit perfectly pressed, stood ramrod straight on the podium and made an admission that came as no surprise. "My wife has all the charisma," Davis said. "I have zero." That same day his Republican opponent, Bill Simon Jr., was in Salinas, also courting Hispanic voters. Simon's message fell flat for a different reason. His campaign was reeling after Thomas Davis III, who heads the Republican party's Congressional Campaign Committee, called Simon's effort the "single worst-run race in the country."

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What's a voter to do? Davis enjoys a 7%-to-10% lead in the polls, but his record is far from inspiring. Davis, who gets credit for reforms in education, is widely blamed for the state's $24 billion deficit, for last year's energy crisis and for what many view as an ethically questionable habit of taking contributions from political appointees. All of which explains why two-thirds of likely voters say they don't like either candidate.

But Davis has the edge, partly as a result of his political skill. He built up a $60 million war chest and has spent it well. During the Republican primary campaign, he effectively attacked former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan, who lost to Simon despite having White House backing. Against Simon, he has played to the electorate's moderate, anticorporate leanings, producing $20 million of ads depicting the multimillionaire as a shady businessman with conservative views on social issues. Simon's opposition to abortion, gun control and environmental regulation has kept him on the defensive, while his relatively small bankroll has kept him from fighting back effectively. "This isn't a state where people have to love you to re-elect you," says Garry South, a Davis strategist. "They just have to feel that by some measure, you're a better alternative than your opponent."

Simon has played his hand badly. He delayed releasing his tax records, withdrew support for Gay Pride Day under pressure from ultraconservatives and endured a jury verdict that his family's investment firm had committed fraud. After a judge tossed out the verdict, Simon undermined his credibility by erroneously suggesting that Davis had illegally accepted a campaign contribution. Barring a dramatic shift, Davis should win. But it won't be charisma that does it for him.