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By David Podvin

Buried among the news about the recall of California Governor Gray Davis is the superb job that was done by his political advisor, Garry South. Despite being saddled with a candidate who had an astonishingly low approval rating of 27%, South skillfully directed Davis into a competitive position that enabled the governor to finish with 45% of the vote.

When a master bridge player is dealt a losing hand, the best he can do is deftly play his cards and hope that the opposition makes a decisive mistake. South ably positioned Davis so that the recall could have been defeated with a little outside help. That assistance did not materialize, but South transformed a rout into a contest by recasting the election into a referendum on Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was a valiant effort that was ultimately doomed by factors beyond the strategist’s control.

In order to appreciate what South accomplished, it is important to revisit the excruciating gauntlet that Davis had to run: Californians were adamant in blaming their governor for the budget deficit that was caused by Pete Wilson’s deregulation of utilities and the subsequent looting of the state by George W. Bush’s energy industry benefactors. The partisan corporate media relentlessly hammered Davis as the “Darth Vader of attack politics”, a label that severely limited his ability to forcefully defend himself against the recall. The Republicans, desperate for a victory in California, threw the full weight of the party behind Schwarzenegger in an all-out effort to take the statehouse from the Democrats.

The governor had failed to maintain a close relationship with Democratic political regulars and his own core constituency, leaving him without a united party to sustain him through the crisis. During the campaign, Davis was betrayed by Democratic Secretary of State Kevin Shelley and condemned by Democratic Attorney General Bill Lockyer. With the Republicans unified and the Democrats in disarray, early opinion polls showed that 77% of Californians favored the recall.

It took a masterful effort by South to convince a fifth of the electorate to change its mind. The strategist increased the level of Davis’ support by recruiting popular Democrats like Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Dianne Feinstein to rally the Democratic base. South’s television commercials did an effective job of presenting the recall in a way that persuaded many people who were fed up with Davis that it was safer to vote to retain him. The South message was that the words and the music of Schwarzenegger’s convoluted agenda did not match.

Having gotten Davis within striking distance, South needed some help. The corporate media steadfastly refused to confront Schwarzenegger on his false statements and contradictory promises. When Arnold refused to debate with the governor, the best chance to defeat the recall fell beyond the control of the Davis campaign.

That golden opportunity belonged to Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, who had one ninety-minute debate during which to expose Schwarzenegger as a clueless neophyte. If Bustamante had revealed Schwarzenegger to be an unacceptable alternative to the status quo, the recall probably would have been defeated. With the Davis campaign on the outside looking in, the lieutenant governor passively squandered the moment, allowing the Republican to gain crucial credibility with the electorate.

Given the factors aligned against Davis, it is amazing that the outcome was still in doubt during the closing days of the campaign. On the eve of the election, all three major television networks pronounced the race “too close to call”. It was a considerable accomplishment to keep the recall as close as it turned out to be, even more impressive than South’s previously successful efforts to sell the uncharismatic Davis to the public. South somehow was able to raise the governor’s Election Day percentage of the vote to a level that was eighteen points above Davis’ personal approval rating.

At first glance, South is merely the losing strategist for a failed campaign. Upon closer examination, however, what we have just witnessed was a world-class chef forced to try to make chicken salad out of chickenshit…and nearly pulling it off.

Mr. South is an invaluable asset to the Democratic Party. He wins the contests in which he has the advantage, and also the ones that are evenly matched. In those races where the other side has a substantial edge, South is still able to keep things highly competitive and give his side a chance to come out on top. Getting the most out of a candidate’s potential is the relevant measure of a political advisor, and South has done it consistently for a long time.

Another barometer of a political operative’s value is the quality of the people who despise him. Tellingly, right wingers fear South and hate his guts. Conservative columnists across the nation have cautioned their readers that South is a “dangerous gutter level fighter”. The reactionary website NewsMax, which claims to have proven conclusively that Hillary Clinton savagely murdered Vince Foster immediately prior to dumping his corpse in Fort Marcy Park, describes South as an “attack dog” who is “ruthless and depraved in his sick quest for power”.

That sounds ideal. History certainly would have been changed for the better if someone fitting that description had been directing the Democratic effort during the Florida recount.

The 2004 presidential campaign is going to be a brutal, no-holds-barred attempt by George W. Bush and Karl Rove to maintain their illegitimate regime. Whoever ultimately wins the Democratic presidential nomination should definitely have Garry South on board for the general election. In a close race, his formidable skill at battling the bad guys will be exactly what is needed to remove the trespasser from the Oval Office.

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Last changed: December 13, 2009