Republicans Unite Behind Simon In Final Push to Oust Gray Davis

Garden Grove, Calif.-"My focus is on Bill Simon and nothing else," California Republican State Chairman Shawn Steel told me over breakfast on the opening morning of his party’s state convention last week. "This race is too close and too exciting not to focus on."

Steel said he will soon put his law practice on hold to campaign full-time for the GOP gubernatorial nominee in the last weeks of Simon’s race to unseat Democratic Gov. Gray Davis.

Later that day, Steel’s sentiments were echoed by a somewhat surprising source: Los Angeles investment banker Gerald Parsky, President Bush’s closest political friend in the Golden State and the man with whom Steel has been locked in a bitter, months-old battle for control of the state Republican Party. "No, this is Bill Simon’s convention," Parsky said at a private party he hosted for reporters at the Garden Grove Hyatt. "All of our efforts have to be for him." Of his poorly concealed feud with Steel, Parsky would say nothing, as it "would distract from our goal of electing a Republican governor in November."

The discipline that arch-foes Steel and Parsky displayed in talking only about Simon and not about each other symbolized the spirit of the entire California GOP. The party here has been known in recent years for its fractious infighting and often-tumultuous conventions, but at last week’s event party loyalists set aside all internecine battles to concentrate on electing Simon and defeating Davis.

For Simon, the convention came at a good time, because it followed a judge’s forceful dismissal of a $78-million judgment against his family’s investment firm that the Davis campaign had been using as part of its estimated $20 million package of anti-Simon TV spots.

Earlier the Simon campaign had weathered controversies over release of his tax returns and his abrupt cancellation of a scheduled appearance at an event for the pro-homosexual Republican Unity Coalition.

But dismissal of the judgment and Davis’s continued lack of popularity have given a boost to the Simon campaign. "And isn’t it amazing after four months of a mean and nasty campaign of negative advertising, Gray Davis has the lowest re-elect numbers in any polls of any governor in America?" Simon campaign manager Sal Russo remarked to reporters. Russo cited a Field Poll-historically skewered toward Democrats-that showed Simon trailing Davis by only seven points. He also noted a recent PPIC poll showing Davis with an unimpressive 40% to 32% lead.

Russo announced that the Simon campaign, which had been cash strapped during the summer (when the negative publicity was strongest), had received $1 million from the Republican National Committee, $2 million from the Republican Governors Association, and a $4-million loan from the candidate himself to underwrite a television blitz.

When skeptical newsmen reminded Russo that Simon had once spoken of a $60-million race against Davis and asked why he just doesn’t donate rather than lend his own money to the campaign, Russo retorted, "So he and [wife] Cindy can get it back and spend it on charities."

Will Simon raise his self-funding level up to, say, $15 million? "I’m not going to tell [Davis campaign manager] Garry South any more than I need to," said Russo.

When reporters cited complaints that Simon is vague on many issues, Russo countered that Simon has been specific on the spending cuts he would make to grapple with the state’s $24 billion-plus deficits and also about what taxes he would cut. Russo said that Simon has also discussed innovative ideas for education and the quality of life ("we’ve stolen an idea from Bill Clinton").

But Russo mostly wanted to underscore what he called the campaign’s "fundamental issue." Davis, he said, "is perceived as a failed governor." On issues ranging from the budget to the energy crisis, Russo said, "we will show no mercy with regard to him." Other operatives privately said they are betting on an extremely low voter turnout-very possibly less than 50% of eligible voters-and that under such circumstances, sentiments against a sitting governor are much more significant than in a larger turnout. (One oft-cited example is John Engler in Michigan, who defied all polls in 1990 and edged out a two-term Democratic governor-the only Republican in the nation that year to unseat an incumbent Democrat for any statewide office-when the turnout was a century-low 44%.)

"I’m having lunch with a few of my friends, that’s all," laughed Davis’s campaign manager Garry South when I encountered him in the coffee shop and asked why he was at the Republican convention. He was flanked by leaders of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, a union that endorsed Davis.

South dismissed Russo’s claims that the Simon campaign would be able to go toe-to-toe with his candidate in the final month of the race. "[Simon] has been off the air for two straight weeks and he’s lied to the media 15 times about when he’s going on TV," South said. "He keeps crying wolf about media buys and, the last time, it was only a minimal buy on cable TV."

South said he was unconcerned by the low marks Davis receives from voters for his job performance. Nor, he said, was he worried about the relatively close Field and PPIC polls. He recalled how former California Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, had a far worse approval rating of 38% in 1993, the year before he won a landslide re-election over Democrat Kathleen Brown.

South also noted that Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown had actually trailed Republican opponent Evelle Younger in most polls at the time of the June primary in 1978, but went on to win in a landslide. "This is not a job in which performance approval is the sole determinant of re-election," he said. "Our own tracking shows Simon’s negatives worse than ours."

Asked how the Davis campaign would take advantage of that, South predictably suggested that they would remind voters that Simon "called himself ‘pro-life’ and ‘proud to be a conservative’ in the [Republican] primary. Sure, he doesn’t talk much like that now. That’s like saying, ‘I’m a giraffe,’ when he used to be camel. Maybe Simon could win in Kansas or Utah, but he doesn’t understand the electorate here."

When South went on to say that another roadblock to Simon’s success is that he "was born to a wealthy family and inherited a lot of money from his father," I replied, "You mean like [Democrats] John Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt." Silent for a moment, South finally responded, "Bill Simon hasn’t had enough time to grow into a Jack Kennedy or FDR."

So the race for the helm of the nation’s largest state and the world’s seventh-largest economy goes on. Given the Democratic registration edge and the three successive Democratic sweeps of statewide elections since 1996, Simon has his work cut out for him. But, at least in his own party, he is a hero with a united following.

Gene Prat, a former top aide to the late Sen. S. I. Hayakawa (R.-Calif.), is a good example of the trend. Prat did not support Simon in the Republican primary, but supports him strongly now. "Voters know Gray Davis and they don’t like him," said Prat. "Voters are just starting to know Bill Simon and they will grow to like him."