Davis’ Closest Political Aide Goes National

Garry South, the pugnacious political strategist who masterminded Gray Davis’ last three election victories, is signing on as a senior campaign advisor to Democratic presidential hopeful Joseph I. Lieberman.

South’s appointment, to be announced today in Washington, comes as Davis faces the threat of a recall, and means the governor will have to fight back with only part-time help from his closest political aide.

In an interview, South said he would continue to participate in occasional conference calls plotting strategy against the recall, as he has over the last few weeks.

“I still care about the governor and want him to succeed,” he said. But, South added, he will take no formal role in fighting the recall effort. “I’ve got other things going on in my life,” he said before flying east for today’s announcement.

The hiring of South could help boost the Connecticut senator’s standing in California, where the Democratic presidential primary remains highly fluid. Last week, Lieberman announced the endorsement of Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and the backing of several prominent Silicon Valley business leaders.

Although South was hired to serve as an advisor on national presidential strategy, he will continue to live and work in Southern California.

He was courted over the last few months by several of the Democratic presidential hopefuls, but described Lieberman as “the one who is exactly where a Democrat needs to be to beat George Bush.”

“He’s tough on defense, strong on the economy, responsible on fiscal matters and progressive on social issues,” said South, who often has been disdainful of politicians from the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. “Also, he has a likable style. We are not going to beat a popular president, even if our voters dislike, or even hate him, without fielding a popular candidate of our own.”

Confrontational and quick with an incendiary quote, South will bring a distinctly more assertive style to the Lieberman campaign, which has struggled to meet expectations following his run as the 2000 Democratic vice presidential nominee.

Asked how the buttoned-down candidate will react, a spokesman for Lieberman chuckled. “As the old saying goes, variety is often the spice of life,” said press secretary Jano Cabrera.

A veteran of roughly two decades in politics, South first came to Davis’ notice during the 1993 Los Angeles mayor’s race, when South served as press secretary to then-Councilman Michael Woo. South took particular delight in harrying the eventual winner of that contest, Republican businessman Richard Riordan.

After the mayor’s race, Davis hired South to run his successful 1994 campaign for lieutenant governor. Four years later, South helped elect Davis to his first term as governor, overcoming long odds in the Democratic primary against two multimillionaire opponents.

But perhaps the boldest stroke of South’s career came last year during Davis’ reelection bid; again it involved Riordan. South and other strategists convinced Davis to spend an unprecedented $10 million on advertising to influence the outcome of the Republican primary. The negative ads attacking the GOP front-runner helped tip the contest to political neophyte Bill Simon Jr., who lost to Davis in November.

Since the last governor’s race, many in Davis’ political brain trust have scattered to different presidential camps. Pollster Paul Maslin is working for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. Press secretary Roger Salazar has signed on with North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. Campaign director Larry Grisolano joined the campaign of Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry.

Maslin and Salazar, however, continue to serve as advisors on the recall effort, part of an informal group that also includes South; David Doak, the governor’s longtime media strategist; and Chris Lehane, a former Davis advisor during the state’s energy crisis and now a campaign strategist for Kerry.