California puzzle

Posted: Oct 21, 2002 12:00 AM
LOS ANGELES -- The nightly tracking poll taken for the California Teachers Association (CTA), made available to Republicans Friday morning, was startling. Thursday night's telephone interviews about the race for governor showed beleaguered Republican candidate Bill Simon leading Democratic Gov. Gray Davis 34.2 percent to 33.7 percent. The three-day tracking roll gave Davis a mere 2.7 percentage point lead. Those numbers collide with Democratic surveys that show a double-digit lead for Davis. They also force a decision on George W. Bush that must be made instantly. Should he pay a final one-day visit to San Diego, perhaps next Monday, to affirm Simon as the Republican Party's California standard-bearer in good standing? Or should he not risk the damage to his prestige in the Golden State that could result from association with a drubbing? At stake is not just the way the nation's most populous state will be governed for the next four years. The baroque Simon-Davis contest is drenched in 2004 presidential politics. President Bush's friends here are concentrating on his becoming the first Republican to carry the state since his father in 1988. Whether Davis tries for the Democratic nomination in 2004 will be determined by his re-election effort this year. Davis ought to have nothing to worry about. The California Republican Party, non-performing and torn by bitter feuds, has hit bottom after decades of decline. Democrats enjoy immense advantages in money, organization and even the erstwhile Republican superiority in getting out the absentee vote. On top of this, Simon's error-plagued campaign shows that a shakedown candidacy for the county board of supervisors or state assembly would have helped. Indeed, the conventional wisdom remains that Davis will win easily against a man best known for being the son of financier William E. Simon, a former secretary of the Treasury. Diluting these immense advantages, Gray Davis is undoubtedly the most unpopular governor of California that anybody can remember. Prominent Democrats privately express contempt for him as a relentless fund-raiser without principles. One well-known elected government official told me he had endorsed Davis as far back as the 1998 Democratic primary but now considers him "another Nixon." He rages that Simon is about to be wiped out, propelling Davis into the White House. He plans to vote for Green Party candidate Peter Miguel Camejo. The poll for the CTA (by Washington-based Republican pollster Jan Van Lohuizen) showed in the Tuesday-through-Thursday three-day roll last week that 52.9 percent of Californians think the state is on the "wrong track" compared with 30.4 percent who say it is going in the "right direction." Davis has never recovered from his handling of last year's energy problems. Most dangerous for Davis are possible defections of Latinos (now comprising one third of the state's population). The legislature's Latino caucus refused to endorse Davis because he vetoed a bill enabling illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses, a measure shown by surveys to be widely unpopular. In response, the governor moved quickly to get 17 of the 22 caucus members to sign an endorsement. Questions cannot be definitively answered until Election Day. Will the lingering undecided voters just stay home? Could an usually light turnout defeat Davis? Has Simon, the victim of Davis's unremitting attack ads and his own mishaps, become unelectable in California? There are loyal, well-placed California Republicans who feel Simon should never have run in the first place, is a sure loser, and that the president should stay out of the Golden State for the next two weeks. Published reports suggest that he might come into Rep. Gary Condit's district in the Central Valley to support an underdog Republican bid for Condit's successor. That won't happen. If Bush comes in, it will be to help Simon. This is a test for the president and his political team. A stunning upset by a terribly flawed campaign would cheer an election night where longtime Republican governorships in Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin probably will end in top-heavy defeats. Bush backers in California distrust the CTA poll, and fear humiliation for the president. A gambler would come here, but Republican presidents usually don't gamble.