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Paging Gray Davis


With several California Democratic candidates behind him, Governor Gray Davis talks about the party's ticket during a rally,  Monday, Nov. 4, 2002, on the grounds of California State University-Los Angeles.  The rally was the last for Davis before the Nov. 5 election. (AP Photo/Rene Macura)(Rene Macura/AP)

With the imminent collapse of Herman Cain's campaign and a surging Newt Gingrich, the Republican primary field is closer than it's been in months to anointing an anti-Mitt Romney candidate.

If President Obama's team wants to cause Romney some real headaches, now is the time to take a page from another Democrat who faced the prospect of a difficult Republican opponent -- former California Gov. Gray Davis.

It's a playbook at least one senior Obama adviser knows well. After all, he wrote it.

In 2002, Davis ran for re-election with terrible approval ratings, a lousy economy and a very strong opponent in Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan. Riordan was a liberal Republican who would have given even Democratic-leaning Californians a palatable option in replacing Davis in the governor's mansion.

But Riordan had to get through a Republican primary first, a primary in which he faced the much more conservative Bill Simon. Riordan had better name recognition and led early polling by wide margins. But Davis and his team meddled in the GOP primary, spending $10 million on advertisements against Riordan before Republican voters headed to the polls. Those ads killed Riordan's momentum; in the March 2002 primary, Simon beat Riordan, 49 percent to 31 percent.

"Early polling showed that Davis's numbers were in the tank. Early polling showed that Riordan was ahead of him in the general election. And Dick Riordan, when he launched his campaign in the primary, decided he was running against Gray Davis," said Garry South, Davis's general consultant in the 2002 race.

Davis effectively picked his opponent, and it paid off: He ran an almost entirely negative campaign, painting Simon as a radical conservative out of touch with California. Despite incredibly low approval ratings -- just 39 percent approved of his job performance on Election Day and 57 percent viewed him personally unfavorably, according to Davis's own polling -- Davis made the race about Simon; Davis won, 47 percent to 42 percent.

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