Let's play presidential politics, 2004.
To participate, you'll have to imagine that George Bush, despite his 75% approval rating, can be beaten.
Regardless of his high numbers, Bush is beatable. Losing the popular vote in 2000 is a shaky foundation for re-election. Not only has Bush been unable to move his legislation forward, he's been saying some very strange things about "the axis of evil" and "getting Osama bin Laden" isn't "all that" important.
For the Democrats, victory hinges on putting up a viable candidate–no small feat.
None of the names most frequently mentioned have the right stuff.
Al Gore, who ran the worst presidential campaign in memory, is a pariah among Democrats. No one wants to give ten cents to put Gore back on the stump.
North Carolina Senator John Edwards is a dark horse possibility. But Edwards has no name recognition outside of the southeast U. S.
Many consider Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) the leading prospect. But Daschle has three major problems. First, like Edwards, he is unknown among voters. Second, few know or care what the Senate Majority Leader does. Third, South Dakota has three electoral votes.
Don't be surprised if, sometime in early 2003, Democratic eyes turn to Sacramento. Gray Davis is as plausible a candidate as anyone.
In November, Davis will chew up and spit out his gubernatorial opponent Bill Simon.
In 1998, Davis crushed Republican Dan Lungren by 20 points. He'll beat Simon by a larger margin.
Davis, as unappealing as he may be to most people, is a savvy, cutthroat politician who has plenty of money and an equal amount of drive.
Look how Davis put the skids to Republican primary favorite Richard Riordan. In the beginning Riordan, the former Los Angeles Mayor, had a double-digit lead over Simon. When Davis got through with him, Riordan lost by double-digits.
Davis orchestrated Riordan's demise brilliantly. In advertising spots in the San Joaquin Valley, Davis showcased the rising crime rates in Los Angeles under Riordan's watch.
And to cut Riordan's legs out from under him in San Francisco and other liberal areas, Davis used his strong pro-choice stance. "Where does Richard Riordan really stand on a woman's right to choose?" wondered one Davis television spot in San Francisco.
Under heavy fire, Riordan was forced to admit that he had financially supported anti-abortion candidates. That doomed him among the more liberal Republicans.
In a national election, Davis will play the choice card to his advantage. Gore, also pro-choice, failed for reasons known only to him to get his message across to women. That cost him precious votes.
Davis can stand toe to toe with Bush on Latino issues, too. Immediately following his 1998 election, Davis was in Mexico giving an abrazo to then President Ernesto Zedillo. And Davis welcomed Zedillo and his successor Vicente Fox to California when Mexico's leaders came calling.
More importantly, Davis gained countless Latino supporters when he negotiated the end of Proposition 187 in a shady smoke-filled room deal. And before long, Davis could sign a bill that would allow illegal aliens to get driver's licenses. He has vetoed it twice but his motivation is greater this time around.
Davis caught a huge break last summer when the California energy crisis never materialized. And for those who hope to use Davis's mismanagement of energy deregulation against him, good luck.
The issue is a hundred times more complex than the average voter's ability to understand.
Davis brings 54 electoral votes to the table, a good starting point. His recognition factor as the governor of the nation's most populated state is not only higher than Daschle's, it's better than two other governors who did pretty well in presidential elections, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
And if you think that Davis just doesn't have the personality to be a major player, then let me remind you of two high-ranking members of the California Political Hall of Fame, Richard Nixon and Pete Wilson.
Although both were constantly derided for their lack of charisma, look at the Election Day records:
Wilson: Assemblyman; San Diego Mayor for ten years; twice elected to the U.S. Senate and twice elected Governor of California.
Nixon: elected to Congress in 1948 and to the U.S. Senate in 1950; elected as Vice-President on the Dwight Eisenhower ticket in 1952 and 1956; elected President in 1968 and 1972.
Davis, like Nixon and Wilson before him, knows how to win.
Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.