Simon hits the big time

Posted: Mar 11, 2002 12:00 AM
Out-of-town journalists were shocked that former L.A. Mayor Dick Riordan wasn't the GOP pick to replace a vulnerable Gov. Gray Davis. But the real story isn't that Riordan tanked, it's how the most qualified Republican candidate, Secretary of State Bill Jones, lost the primary -- thanks to the White House. In his stead, businessman Bill Simon will run. Simon doesn't have the arrogant demeanor of, say, millionaire Democratic hopeful Al Checchi. Still, he is a born-to-money candidate who missed voting in some primaries, never served in elective office and looks, as Davis aide Roger Salazar once quipped, "like he was running for president of the yacht club." Fortune shines on Simon, however: When Davis entered office, there was a budget surplus; he now faces a $17 billion deficit. It may not be Davis' fault that revenues are down, but it is his fault that state government is 36 percent larger than it was three budgets ago. I'd give Simon a 30 percent chance of beating Davis in November. Back to the GOP primary. If the White House hadn't wooed Riordan, the race would have been Simon vs. Jones. A better debater with a solid handle on state issues, Jones probably would have won and stood a stronger chance against Davis. But nooooo. The Bushies had to pay back Jones for switching his 2000 presidential endorsement from Dubya to U.S. Sen. John McCain. On paper, Riordan looked like the perfect candidate for California. He's pro-choice and has shown he can win Latino votes. In the flesh, however, Riordan was a perfectly bad candidate. He said that if elected, he would hire "the best and the brightest" and "empower" them. Forget that "empower" is a word no GOP primary candidate should ever use. Riordan showed he could hire the most mediocre when he picked as his campaign manager a man who had never run a political campaign. The campaign staff was bloated and feckless. The operation ran like a chicken without a head. Hubris is the only word you can give a man who takes for granted that he'll skate through a Republican primary. Double hubris: The gazillionaire's campaign even had a "chief of staff" for his wife. (And Nancy Daly Riordan didn't vote for her husband Tuesday because she is a registered Democrat.) Pundits have spun Riordan's demise as conservative Repubs ousting Riordan for being too moderate. Au contraire. Says Simon guru Sal Russo, Simon bested Riordan in moderate GOP counties, including San Francisco and Alameda. Moderate Repubs were just as angry that Riordan had funneled $1 million into Dem campaign coffers as conservatives were. Enter Simon, the understudy. He ran a ground campaign. He cultivated the ladies who put the flags in the GOP dinner baskets. Unlike Jones, he had money to buy ads that would catapult him to the top. And he had a trump card -- the valued endorsement of America's mayor, Rudolph Giuliani. Simon has advantages over Riordan in the general election. He is disciplined. He will run to the right of Davis -- which means he won't lose the conservative base in November. The Davis vs. Simon race doesn't have to be a repeat of 1998 -- Davis vs. Dan Lungren -- with Davis pummeling his rival by 20 points. Simon comes across as more genial than Lungren. As consultant Russo noted, Lungren followed 16 years of Republican governors. In 1998, a Democrat was president. Also, Russo predicts "a very bleak summer" as Sacramento struggles to pass a budget. If the bleak summer includes a heat wave, power outages could highlight Gumby's bungling of what should have been an energy problem, but turned into an energy crisis. Riordan's best campaign line was: "Davis faced this crisis with a two-part plan. Part one was inaction. Part two was overreaction." Part three, it turns out, is Davis trying to wriggle out of the energy contracts he made as part of plan two. Another factor: After Sept. 11, it's hard to paint pro-lifers as "extremists." Simon says that as a former prosecutor he would respect abortion laws even though he person ally opposes abortion. Now it's up to him to convince voters that he is closer to them on marginal abortion issues, such as the taxpayer funding of abortions and parental consent. Davis has a 100 percent rating with the California Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. Simon needs to paint Davis as extreme in taking the positions to earn that rating. Simon has some big weaknesses. At Wednesday morning's GOP unity breakfast, he told the crowd, "If I'm correct, I actually got more votes than Gray Davis. And he essentially ran unopposed." Wrong. Davis garnered 1.6 million votes, Simon got 1 million. Simon's victory speech was stale. He should have pounded Davis with some good opposition research coming out of the box. Instead, he squandered his victory. He'll get a bump in the polls, but without leaving a bruise. On Simon's side, on the other hand, sits fortune. He has one, so he could pay for ads when Riordan was vulnerable. Now Davis is vulnerable, too. Davis won more votes Tuesday, but 19 percent of Democrats voted for fringe candidates, who ran no real campaigns and who had only one thing to offer: They aren't Gray Davis.