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Missteps muddle California election


GARDEN GROVE, Calif. - Bill Simon's bid for governor of California is the suicide campaign that won't die.

A millionaire in his first try for public office, Simon has stumbled repeatedly since backing into the Republican nomination against Democratic Gov. Gray Davis.

His plans of running on his business background were undercut by a $78 million fraud verdict against his family's investment company (recently overturned by a judge) and an Internal Revenue Service probe of the firm's tax shelters. He bungled the release of his tax returns, providing more fodder for attack ads by the governor, who is portraying Simon as unfit to run the state.

His organization has suffered from almost continuous infighting and disarray. A prominent supporter, former Reagan aide Lyn C. Nofziger, publicly condemned Simon as "inept, weak [and] too dumb to win." His top strategist concedes that the challenger is still "largely a blank slate" to voters barely a month before the election.

Wealthy Republican donors have closed their wallets, preventing Simon from keeping television ads on the air in this state of 35 million people, where, as his strategist Sal Russo says, "if you're not on television, you don't exist."

And yet, battered and badly outspent in a state that tilts away from Republicans, Simon is trailing the governor by only 8 points in the latest opinion polls. A leading Democratic consultant not involved in the governor's race gives Simon a 40 percent chance of upsetting the incumbent.

Unpopular incumbent

That the 51-year-old challenger remains a plausible threat has little to do with his anemic campaign effort and everything to do with the dim view that many Californians take of their governor.

In an election year when governors across the country are being blamed for a woeful economy, Davis, 59, governor of the nation's most populous state, might be the most unpopular incumbent of all.

Voters elected Davis four years ago largely on the basis of his competence and experience. But opinion polls show that most Californians now disapprove of his job performance.

Even among Democrats, a recent statewide survey found, a clear majority is dissatisfied with the choice of candidates and unenthusiastic about voting this fall. One in three Democrats either supports someone else or is undecided, polls show.

"It's amazing to me that Davis is still ahead," said Mark DiCamillo, director of the independent Field Poll. "And it's due to the weakness of his opponent."

Davis' fall from favor began during the widely publicized electric power shortages that crippled the state's budget and drove electricity bills through the roof. Even though there hasn't been a blackout since May 2001, his popularity has not rebounded.

The governor's single-minded devotion to fund raising - he has collected a record $56 million so far - has alienated some Democrats and given Republicans a campaign issue. Davis denies that he has broken any laws in collecting millions from donors with business before the state, and his top strategist dismisses claims that the issue will cost him votes.

"Telling people that politicians raise money is like telling people that dogs drink out of toilet bowls," said Garry South, the governor's campaign consultant.

Attack strategy

Last winter, anticipating a tough re-election fight, Davis ran $9 million worth of negative ads against former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a White House-backed candidate thought to have the best chance of unseating him. What made the attack unusual was that Riordan was running in the Republican primary at the time.

The strategy worked, and California Republicans wound up nominating a weak first-time candidate in Simon, whose only real assets were support from hard-core conservatives and an endorsement from former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, his boss in the U.S. attorney's office during the 1980s. Davis' shrewd attempt to pick his opponent has been copied by other incumbent governors seeking re-election this year, including Republican Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida.

For months, Davis has turned his guns on Simon, with an attack ad barrage that has prevented the Republican from attracting the independent swing votes he would need to win.

"Davis has bombed him the way we bombed the Afghans. He's just bouncing rubble now," said Bill Whalen, who served as an aide to former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson.

With almost one in five voters undecided, Davis plans to spend about $20 million on television ads, direct mail appeals and voter turnout efforts during the next five weeks. Simon will have less than half that, unless he digs deeper into his own pocket. (He has already put $9 million into his campaign.)

Several minor party candidates could draw upward of 10 percent of the vote, but none is a serious contender. Green Party candidate Peter M. Camejo, who will likely draw the most protest votes, favors legalizing marijuana, which he says would provide $3 billion toward closing the state's budget gap, expected to exceed $10 billion next year.

The unpopular Davis, keeping a low profile, has been campaigning from the governor's office in Sacramento by signing bills that please elements of his Democratic base and draw distinctions with his Republican foe. During the past week, he has approved the nation's first paid family leave law, made California the first state to repeal laws protecting gun manufacturers from damage suits and legalized embryonic stem cell research in the state.

Today, he is expected to sign several measures into law that are strongly supported by Latinos, who cast one in seven votes statewide: One would allow undocumented immigrants to get drivers licenses; another would strengthen the labor rights of migrant farm workers.

'Do you know me?'

Simon, meanwhile, is trying to jump-start his candidacy. He delivered a forceful attack on Davis at the state Republican convention over the weekend, while acknowledging the shortcomings in his candidacy.

"There still are a few skeptics," said Simon, whose reference to his campaign's "summer doldrums" drew knowing laughter from the audience.

This week, the Republican nominee says he will air a new television ad designed to introduce him to state voters. It is the kind of commercial, his advisers acknowledge, that should have run months ago.

In the commercial, which recalls an old American Express ad campaign featuring washed-up politicians, Simon speaks to the camera for the first time since last winter.

"Do you know me?" he asks. It is a question, polls indicate, that many, if not most, Californians cannot answer.

The governor's campaign consultant, who crashed the Republican convention, shrugs off the latest push by the underdog challenger.

"Every time they say they've turned the corner," said South, "we find out they're going down another dead end."

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