SACRAMENTO - In the almost 30 years he has worked down the street in the California state capitol, Democratic Gov. Gray Davis says he had never seen the inside of the little theater in the old Memorial Auditorium. And certainly he had never appeared on its stage with more at stake.
The Wednesday evening televised forum was the seventh time in the last month the embattled governor has subjected himself to an hour of questioning from audiences, including some of the disenchanted voters who signed the petitions to recall him from the office to which he was elected for the second time last November. The "ask the governor" sessions represent a calculated gamble - and perhaps the best gimmick he has so far discovered - for defeating the recall referendum threatening his hold on office.
The "man in the arena" format of answering seemingly spontaneous questions from average citizens is hardly a Davis innovation. Richard Nixon used such sessions in the 1968 campaign to impress the public with his professed openness and his practiced articulateness, only to have Joe McGinniss later reveal them for the contrived affairs they were, in his book, "The Selling of the President." Davis' events appear to be less scripted, the audience participants less carefully screened - though there were few zingers from the people who turned out here in this government-dominated company town, where a high percentage of the voters are on the public payroll.
But the main difference between Davis' quiz sessions and Nixon's is that the Davis strategists don't mind seeing Davis squirm a bit. The idea quite simply is to let the voters see Davis being punched and pummeled, in order to dissipate some of the public fury with him before those voters take it out on him at the polls.
It looks like a desperate tactic, but Garry South, the political consultant who has shaped the strategy of Davis' past campaigns, says he has seen it work in a long-forgotten Illinois Senate race.
In 1978, a young Garry South worked for Alex Seith, a wealthy Chicago businessman who was challenging Sen. Charles H. Percy, the Republican incumbent best known for his work on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. As South recalls, Percy was regarded as being very vulnerable; the complaint was that he had become so engrossed in foreign policy that he had forgotten his constituents in Illinois.
"What Percy did," South said the other day, "was to hold town meetings all over the state and tell people that he knew they were disappointed in him but that he understood why and would mend his ways if they gave him another term. He let them vent their frustration with him early, rather than hoarding it for Election Day, and by then, they had forgiven him."
"I think it is cathartic not only for the people in the audience but for those watching at home to be able to tell Davis, to his face, what they don't like about him," South said. "And it lets him show that he is chastened and will change."
It may or may not save Davis. Percy never had as low a job approval rating as the low 20s Davis was recording this spring and summer, in the wake of the energy crisis and the economic slump that knocked a $38 billion hole in the state budget.
The other problem is that Davis resists pleading guilty. He told the audience here, as he has in other cities, that he deeply regrets his failure during his years in statewide office to hold regular town meetings with constituents, because "I learn so much from listening directly to you." He swears that if he beats the recall, he will continue to carve out time for frequent town meetings in the next three years.
But Davis also wants to defend his record and argue with those who blame him for the state's problems. Those problems, he insists, stem from a weak national economy and from the manipulations of greedy power companies. And besides, he says, they are almost all in the past. The lights haven't flickered off once in California in two years and the state budget is now balanced- though critics say it's by smoke and mirrors.
So it's a mixed message that comes through- part contrition, part defensiveness. The real political value of the televised town meetings may be different from the one South outlines. Davis may be as much a loner in politics as Nixon was, but, like Nixon, he sounds knowledgeable and even plausible in dealing with the easily anticipated questions voters ask.
As Nixon showed, that alone can sometimes help an unloved and unlovable politician win.
David Broder is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group. His address is 1150 15th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. David Broder's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.