San Diego Union Tribune

Page A-7

25-Feb-2001 Sunday

   D.C. visit has Davis in national spotlight |
   But crisis shadows governors' meeting 


WASHINGTON -- Gov. Gray Davis kicked off a four-day visit to Washington yesterday hoping to talk politics as head of the Democratic Governors' Association, a job that has fueled speculation about his presidential ambitions.

Yet, before Davis could get to the podium, he was collared by a reporter who wanted to ask him about California's energy crisis.

The episode illustrates the extent to which Davis' political future is dependent on his ability to resolve that crisis. Although he came here to hobnob with his fellow state executives at the National Governors' Association winter meeting and to preside over a fund-raiser for the
Democratic association, California's power woes will consume plenty of his time.

It's sure to be a topic of discussion with gubernatorial colleagues who are busy deregulating their own power markets.

Davis has some ready advice on how not to do it:

"My message is . . . don't deregulate unless you have more supply than demand, a commitment to continue that surplus by building new (power) plants -- and make sure you have first claim on the power" being produced in the state.

Davis will also trek to the Energy Department this week, to make a renewed pitch for federal price controls on wholesale electricity. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham has made clear the Bush administration's opposition to price controls, but Davis intends to continue lobbying for them.

"Price caps are not an appropriate word," Davis said, explaining that he will push for "cost-plus" price limits, which would allow power sellers to charge what it costs them to produce the electricity, plus a set profit.

"If that was done for six to nine months, it would give all the West a breathing spell we desperately need."

This being Washington, Davis will be the subject of chatter about a possible run for the White House in 2004. As governor of the nation's largest state, he is inevitably in the top tier of speculation about potential Democratic candidates.

"He's got access to some of the things that a presidential wannabe would want to have," said political analyst Stuart Rothenberg, those things being a huge reserve of electoral votes, plenty of deep pockets to pump for campaign contributions and a national profile.

When Davis became chair-apparent of the Democratic Governors' Association last year, many observers noted that Bill Clinton and Michael Dukakis had used the same position as a political springboard.

Davis has played down such talk.

"He's entirely focused on being governor, right now," and getting re-elected to that job in 2002, said spokesman Steve Maviglio.

Davis was quick to point out, however, that the DGA would be having "it's most successful (fund-raising) dinner ever" tomorrow night. It is expected to take in $5.5 million, about a fifth of which was raised by Davis' own political organization.

At his urging, the DGA will also have three other fund-raising events around the country and an equal number of policy summits.

Still, Davis can probably say goodbye to any presidential ambitions if he fails to bring California in for a soft landing on the power crisis.

"We're looking to see how he handles it," Rothenberg said, speaking on behalf of political analysts. "This is kind of a test case that he can use to demonstrate his effectiveness."