On paper, Bill Simon may look like road kill. But don't expect to scrape his carcass off the pavement anytime soon. Defying the conventional wisdom, Simon very well could be California's next governor.
The race won't be easy. The Republican son of GOP icon William Simon -- treasury secretary to President Richard Nixon -- has never served in public office. Still, he expects to start at the top of a state with the fifth largest economy in the world. It's a daunting challenge for a political neophyte, let alone one who's challenging Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, who trounced his last GOP challenger by more than 1.6 million votes.
Simon will have to motivate voters to show up at the polls, even though he failed to vote in 13 of the last 20 California elections. Worse, Simon once wrote a check for $250 to the Davis campaign. Davis campaign guru Garry South said such problems make Simon look like "a rich, flaky dilettante who thinks: 'I'm so important because I'm rich. I have no obligation to engage in the same rituals that ordinary people do, like voting.'"
That said, Simon is no Al Checchi (who lost the Democratic nod to Davis four years ago despite spending a wheelbarrow full of money). He doesn't come across as an arrogant rich guy with too much ambition. He has a genuine, affable manner. His political consultant, Sal Russo, likes to say that Simon appeals to female voters because he comes across as more "collaborative" than stick-figure politicians such as Davis and Al Gore.
After years of decline, GOP registration is climbing in California. Simon may also benefit from the support of President George W. Bush and the personal endorsement of America's mayor, Rudolph Giuliani -- for whom Simon worked as an assistant U.S. attorney. Giuliani's post-9-11 "halo effect" helped Simon trounce former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan in the Republican primary, to the astonishment of political observers. Voters also might like Simon's outsider business experience, including his investment in PAX-TV -- a network free of graphic violence, sex and inappropriate language.
Simon's biggest challenge: He's an anti-abortion candidate running in a state that hasn't elected a top-ticket pro-lifer in 16 years.
The biggest thing Simon has going for him, though, is Davis. A February Public Policy Institute of California poll reported that 53 percent of likely voters disapproved of Davis' performance as governor. Despite the fact that Californians voted overwhelmingly for Gore in the 2000 presidential election, Bush won a much higher approval rating in the poll -- 71 percent -- than Davis, at 44 percent.
"On the issues that matter most to people -- the economy, education and electricity -- (voters) just don't feel like he has delivered," explained pollster Mark Baldassare.
While former Gov. Pete Wilson had high negative poll ratings on the day he was re-elected, Davis' negative numbers are worse than Wilson's, at least according to Simon's campaign team.
Because he faced a $14 billion budget shortfall shortly after taking office, Wilson was viewed as inheriting his problems. Davis is viewed as creating his.
He inherited a $4 billion surplus -- which in one term, with help from a faltering economy, devolved into a shortfall of $17 billion.
Simon strategist Russo predicts nasty, protracted budget battles this summer. Voters may wonder why Davis didn't plan ahead to avoid this humungous shortfall. The legislature is unlikely to pass a budget on time. Democrats, led by San Francisco's firebrand state Sen. John Burton, no doubt will attack Davis for the program cuts he will have to make -- and they'll probably relate Davis' decisions to his fast and furious $1-million-per month fund-raising frenzy.
On the one hand, worse things could happen to a governor in a state that generally goes for centrists than to have liberal Democrats moaning that a fellow Democrat doesn't want to spend as much as they do on programs.
On the other hand, some angry hardcore Democrats may decide to stay home on Election Day -- or vote for a fringe candidate. Some of them may even end up voting for Simon, as some New York Dems did for that city's new Republican mayor, Michael Bloomberg. Never underestimate the force of personal antipathy.
Voters blame Davis for his slowpoke handling of California's electricity woes. Wags nicknamed California's rolling blackouts "Gray-Outs." Pundits noted that Davis seemed more intent on blaming the power outages on President Bush than on fixing the problems.
Failed GOP candidate Richard Riordan liked to say: "Davis faced this crisis with a two-part plan. Part one was inaction. Part two was overreaction."
Yet even Davis' overreaction may have fallen short. While Davis has boasted that new power plants will be built, the California Energy Commission has downgraded its predictions for new power from 27,400 new megawatts to 9,950 new megawatts by 2004.
So if 2002 presents us with a long, hot summer, the lights could go out again.
Then there are Davis' Tourette's Moments. In 1999, Davis told the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board that the legislature's job was "to implement my vision." When the San Diego Union-Tribune editorial board asked Davis if he panicked during the electricity crisis, Davis snapped: "If I didn't panic, you wouldn't be able to put out your paper. I saved this friggin' paper. I kept the lights on in this state." The Vietnam vet also told the paper the energy crisis was "worse than Vietnam."
In 1992, Davis ran a TV spot that compared rival Democrat Dianne Feinstein to convicted tax cheat Leona Helmsley. What did the two women have in common besides being rich and Jewish? The campaign pretense was that Helmsley blamed others for her accounting errors, as did Feinstein when authorities investigated Feinstein campaign spending irregularities.
Davis may also be vulnerable because he recently signed a bill allowing illegal immigrants to pay subsidized in-state tuition to California state universities and colleges. According to Simon pollster Steve Kinney, who polled on the bill before Sept. 11: "Nobody has thought it's fair. Why should somebody from outside the country pay in-state while somebody from Arizona has to pay out-of-state tuition?"
Those are the holes in the Davis armor -- but it's still more armor than Simon ever polished. Davis has the money, the expertise that only a sitting governor enjoys and a crack team of operatives who know how to run a winning statewide race.
Davis guru South compared Simon to two vanquished Davis foes: "This guy is a cross between Al Checchi (who failed to vote in four of six California elections) and Dan Lungren (the losing anti-abortion GOP nominee). And I think we have the playbook on these two guys." Plus, Davis has the neutron-bomb abortion issue to throw at Simon. No doubt South has videotape of vanquished GOP rival Riordan calling his old buddy Simon an extremist.
But Simon doesn't come across as an extremist. Up close and personal, he's more down-to-earth -- more humane -- than Gumby (Sacto insiders' nickname for Davis). Californians won't fall for a smear job on Simon if Simon can change the direction of his campaign and infuse his effort with the gravitas it currently lacks.
The Davis people believe in their man and their message. You can't say the same for Team Simon. Right after the primary, the Simon camp threatened to charge reporters $1,000 to fly around the state with Simon. They later cut the fee to $650, but the message to reporters was clear: The campaign wanted a wall between Simon and the press. Since then, the campaign has routinely denied journalists access to Simon.
So, at a time when Simon has to persuade voters that he could do better than Davis, he's hiding from the people paid to ask him specific questions. He repeatedly has failed to give a detailed plan of what programs he would cut to balance the budget.
Simon campaign spokesman Jeff Flint told the Los Angeles Times that his candidate's philosophy is to "trust individuals, trust people to solve problems, and I think that's very consistent with Californians' philosophy." Which is campaignese for: Trust Bill Simon to be good, but not to be dumb enough to tell you which programs he'd cut or how he'd pay for his school programs.
If Simon advisers think they can sneak Simon into the governor's mansion by tiptoeing, they're mistaken. And they're doubly mistaken if they believe that the current occupants will not be able to shoot bullets at them if their candidate just stays hunched over so that he's invisible from the windows.
They have to make a strong, affirmative case for their candidate, and they have to paint Gray Davis as the Gumby of all time -- a blow-dried careerist who puts his ambition above the interests of the people of California.
This can't be a stealth campaign. If Bill Simon wants to be governor, he's going to have to stand up and knock at the door. Who knows? In this volatile year, voters may just invite him inside.