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Bush to Campaign for Simon in State

Politics: President's visit is an effort to provide financial as well as moral support to man who was his second choice in Republican primary.

April 28, 2002|MICHAEL FINNEGAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When President Bush was scouting for a Republican candidate to challenge Gov. Gray Davis, conservative Bill Simon Jr. was not the kind he had in mind.

Bush preferred a moderate, and his first choice was Richard Riordan.

But eight weeks after Simon clobbered Riordan in the GOP primary, Bush is due to arrive in California on Monday to make amends.

As the star attraction of Simon fund-raisers Monday night in Los Angeles and Tuesday in the Silicon Valley, Bush is expected to raise more than $3 million for the Republican nominee.

"It's a big financial shot in the arm," said Simon strategist Sal Russo. "It demonstrates to anyone who's foolishly a doubter that the president is totally committed to this race."

However firm the president's commitment ends up being, it will have as much to do with Bush's prospects for reelection as it does with the governor's race.

A Simon victory in November would be a huge boost to a Bush reelection effort. California's governor--a magnet for TV cameras and campaign donations--can put the machinery of incumbency to work for a president.

Even if Simon were to lose by a narrow margin, Democrats could be shaken enough that in 2004, they would dump money into California that otherwise would flow to Florida, Michigan or other presidential battleground states.

In 2000, Al Gore was able to spend nothing in California, yet defeat Bush by 1.3 million votes. Despite his wartime popularity, analysts said, Bush still faces an uphill struggle to win California in 2004.

"They'd love to have California in play and win California, but I'm kind of skeptical about their ability to do so," said Stuart Rothenberg, who publishes a nonpartisan political newsletter in Washington.

Bush's approval rating in California--as in the rest of the country--has soared since Sept. 11. A Times poll in January found 75% of California voters approved of his job performance.

"If the election were held today, he'd win in a landslide," said state Senate Republican Leader Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga.

But Democrats outnumber Republicans in California, 45% to 35%. All but one of California's statewide elected officials are Democrats. Democrats control both houses of the Legislature and dominate the state's congressional delegation.

So to win in California, Bush, like Simon, must draw support from Democrats and independents. And to do so, he must overcome some of the same obstacles that face Simon.

To start, both oppose abortion rights and gun control. Those positions put Bush and Simon at odds with most voters in the state and provide opponents two major lines of attack.

Bush and Simon also support vouchers to send children to private schools at taxpayer expense--another issue that California voters have opposed and that Davis has used to hammer Simon for weeks.

And Bush and Simon have ties to the oil industry that heighten their vulnerability on the environment--a touchstone issue among California moderates.

For Bush, overcoming those liabilities could require both success in the war and sustained improvement in the economy, said political scientist Larry N. Gerston of San Jose State.

"If the economy is moving well, people are more forgiving on a lot of those issues," he said.

Democrats and independents in recent California focus groups have praised Bush's handling of the war, but still see him as a "daddy's boy, not very smart, not very articulate--all that stuff," said Democratic strategist Bill Carrick.

"If he's really popular nationwide, he's going to be popular here, but less so," Carrick said. "If he's unpopular nationwide, he'll be more so here."

Bush advisors expect the president's approval ratings to drift downward and level off. But because of his response to the Sept. 11 attacks, they said, Bush can compete in 2004 from a stronger foundation in Democratic states like California.

"Voters' perception of the president has been fundamentally altered," said White House pollster Matthew Dowd.

To win California, Bush and Simon must gain support among two crucial voting blocs: Latinos and moderate suburban women. Bush has appealed to both by stressing his support for school reforms, a tactic adopted by Simon.

Bush has taken pains to appeal to Latinos and other minorities, albeit with limited success. Immigration reform has been high on Bush's agenda as president. Monday, he will visit South-Central Los Angeles on the 10th anniversary of the riots.

Simon, however, has focused less on minority outreach. On Cesar Chavez Day this month, Simon ignored the occasion; the Democratic governor celebrated with Latinos at a school in East Los Angeles. It has been five weeks since Simon's last campaign stop targeting Latino voters.

The absence of a major effort by Simon to reach beyond his conservative base has worried some GOP leaders. Several privately have acknowledged losing confidence in him as Davis has managed to define the campaign's focus, most recently by attacking Simon for refusing to release his tax returns.

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