6/4/2001 12:00:00 AM - Robert Novak
LOS ANGELES -- Gray Davis seemed marginalized by the pomp and power of the presidency here last week when he confronted George W. Bush on the state's power shortage. But many defeated politicians have underestimated the cunning and determination of the soft-spoken governor of California. Now he is intent on pinning blame for the crisis on the president.
Gov. Davis's political condition may seem desperate thanks to rolling blackouts and soaring electric bills. The Democrat elected governor in a 1998 landslide was down to 46 percent approval last month in a Public Policy Institute of California survey that gave 57 percent to President Bush, who lost here last year by a million votes. The state's demoralized Republicans see a little light at the end of the tunnel.
They may be as wrong as Democratic leaders who wrote off Davis for the 1998 nomination. He has framed the debate with Bush over government caps on electric power costs. The president's opposition takes the economic high ground, because price controls never work. But he has been maneuvered by Davis into seemingly blocking relief for California consumers. The nation's most populous state is the 29th state visited by Bush as president, but some prominent Republicans here think he should have waited until he had a politically attractive alternative to price caps.
Bush certainly had no magic formula but avoided Vice President Dick Cheney's indictment of Californians for failing to provide enough power to avoid sweating in the dark. The president tried to show he felt the state's pain and called Davis "your good governor."
The president's entourage left here with no illusions about the politics of California energy but feel the encounter with Davis came off better than expected. The governor was hardly mentioned, as he sat on the dais a few feet from Bush at a Los Angeles World Affairs Council luncheon after asking to sit next to him. Mayor Richard Riordan, a potential Republican candidate against Davis next year, was introduced by homebuilder Bruce Karatz as "the best mayor in America." Bush, in turn, was lavishly introduced by Riordan.
Davis joined the friendly audience in interrupting Bush's speech with polite applause, but did not clap with the others when the president opposed price caps. Invited to a meeting with Bush and selected California businessmen, Davis said nothing. The governor privately asked Bush aides if there were any way the president might "find a back door or a side door" for price caps. The answer was no.
The 40-minute Bush-Davis "summit" was a tame affair not faintly resembling the governor's fierce rhetoric preceding the president's visit. As the meeting ended and participants walked to the door, Davis -- almost off-hand -- told Bush he probably would go to court to force the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to set price caps. The master politician from Sacramento had not impressed the president.
But once Bush left, Davis immediately resumed the attack by declaring to television cameras that he would sue the federal government and now would work with the Democratic-controlled Senate. On the day after Bush left California, Thursday's New York Times carried an op-ed column by Davis warning that the president is "setting" a "perilous" course for the state and nation by opposing caps.
If that personalized assault is reminiscent of Al Gore's campaign against Bush, it is because of common architects. Davis has hired Gore attack specialists Mark Fabiani and Chris Lehane, experts at dissecting opponents, on the public payroll for a combined $30,000 a month. They will sharpen Davis's tongue, but they may energize somnolent California Republicans to fight back.
Davis never had a chance to talk Bush into price controls. Nor is suing the FERC much of a strategy. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit on Tuesday threw out a similar suit by Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown and Democratic legislative leaders.
New arguments will be presented by Davis's lawyers, but this suit cannot save California from a dark, hot summer. The governor's goal is putting the blame on George W. Bush. Realists around the president concede that may well succeed, but they doubt Gray Davis will escape political retribution.