Bush, Davis at odds in Calif.

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Bush, Davis at Odds in Calif.

By Ron Fournier, AP White House Correspondent

Tuesday, May 29, 2001; 5:05 p.m. EDT

LOS ANGELES –– President Bush rejected California Gov. Gray Davis' plea for federal caps on soaring electricity bills Tuesday and called for an end to their feud and finger pointing. "Blame shifting is not action," he said. "It is distraction."

"We are entitled to relief," the governor said, unswayed by Bush.

On a three-day mission to improve his West Coast political prospects, the president played down his private meeting with Davis in favor of an unusually busy public schedule highlighting his efforts to conserve electricity at federal installations, ease summer energy costs to the poor and boost the state's long-term resources.

Davis, a Democrat with hopes of challenging Bush for the presidency in 2004, demanded that Washington force down electricity prices that have cost California nearly $8 billion since January.

"It doesn't matter if someone thinks we should have relief; the law says we should have relief," the governor said in a public discussion with victims of the energy crunch, staged in the same hotel where Bush was staying.

Later, a stone-faced Davis sat two seats away when the president told California business leaders, "Price caps do nothing to reduce demand, and they do nothing to increase supply." Bush said price limits are politically appealing but create "more serious shortages and therefore, even higher prices."

The shouts of two protesters knocked Bush off rhythm temporarily. "Stop the gouging of our economy!" yelled one. Joined by Davis, the audience applauded as the protesters were taken out of the hotel ballroom.

Davis and Bush shook hands warmly before and after the president's speech. They planned to meet privately later. That session was tightly choreographed, and neither side expected a resolution of their differences. Too much was at stake: After weeks of mixed signals, Bush needs to show Californians he sympathizes with their power problems. Davis, his approval rating plummeting, is searching for a scapegoat – and a way out of the energy crunch.

Polls show voters in the nation's most populous state don't think either politician is doing enough to ease their power woes. Shortages and high prices could spread elsewhere and cause political problems for Bush. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham was in Yonkers, N.Y., on Tuesday, warning that transmission bottlenecks are not restricted to California.

Bush has criticized California, and by implication Davis himself, for not building more power plants or moving quicker to respond to fallout from faulty state deregulation laws. He sought Tuesday to remain above the fray, even as White House advisers continued to criticize Davis privately and predicted that the governor's confrontational approach would backfire now that Bush has changed his public tone.

"For too long – and too often – too many have wasted energy pointing fingers and laying blame," Bush told the Los Angeles World Affair Council in remarks aimed at Davis. "Energy is a problem that requires action: Not politics, not excuses, but action. And blame-shifting is not action – it is distraction."

Earlier, in the sundappled courtyard of the 1st Marine Division headquarters – nicknamed "the White House" for the color of its low-slung wood facade – Bush delivered a speech offering small measures of federal help to California.

The initiatives include:

–$150 million to help low-income Americans pay energy bills this summer. He will ask Congress to approve the additional spending for this fiscal year, which ends in October.

–His announcement that military facilities in California have exceeded their goal of trimming usage by 10 percent during peak hours.

–A Department of Energy project to stimulate the building of more electrical lines running north and south through the state.

Bush also said his $1.35 trillion tax-cut plan will offer "some help" to people struggling to pay soaring energy bills.

Davis, who was elected in 1998 in a landslide, has watched his job approval rating drop about 20 percentage points since January as he struggled to come to grips with the state's energy shortages and rolling blackouts.

Bush's job approval rating is still relatively high, though 56 percent of Californians in a recent poll said they disapprove of his handling of the electricity crisis. The president has avoided the state since losing its 54 electoral votes to Democratic rival Al Gore by 12 percentage points. He visited 29 states to promote his tax and budget plans before finally coming to California.

Senior Republicans, including some Bush advisers, privately concede that Bush's prospects are dim for winning California in 2004. They are working on electoral map models that don't include the state in his chase for 270 electoral votes.

Bush had to eek out a recount in Florida to win the presidency without California last year. Sooner on the horizon are the 2002 congressional elections, where California could tip the balance. Republicans say Bush has to improve his standing here to help the GOP maintain control of the House and regain the Senate.

© Copyright 2001 The Associated Press

-- Swissrose (cellier3@mindspring.com), May 29, 2001

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