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In Uphill Fight, Simon Focuses on Agriculture

Election: Steadily creeping up in the polls, the little-known Republican makes campaign stops in the Central Valley.

January 30, 2002|NICHOLAS RICCARDI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BAKERSFIELD — The scene on a rural two-lane road early one morning this week looked more like the aftermath of a fender-bender than an announcement by the man who wants to be governor.

A small group of dark-suited men huddled on the muddy shoulder across from their rental cars, staring at the vast, gray sky and row after row of barren almond trees. The only hint of the gathering's true nature was a small yellow-and-blue placard taped to the back of the stop sign. It featured a rendering of California and the words "Simon for Governor."

Los Angeles businessman Bill Simon Jr. had come to this Central Valley city to talk about water policy to two supporters, three newspaper writers and about a half-dozen of his aides. Sarah Takii, one of the two local Simon fans, told a reporter: "Mr. Simon has been very well-received in Kern County."

Therein lies the paradox of the campaign of Simon, a multimillionaire and political neophyte who does not talk in his television ads, attracts virtually no supporters to his events and is repeatedly questioned about whether he is really running for governor or positioning himself for a future race. Yet he is steadily creeping up in the polls.

In a Times poll this week, Simon trailed the Republican front-runner, former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, 26% to 21%, in a low-turnout primary, the type Simon's handlers are expecting. With higher turnout, Riordan's lead grows to 34% over 20%. Other polls show similar, if less dramatic, movement for a candidate who little more than a month ago pulled about 5% support.

To win the Republican nomination in the March 5 primary, he still has a steep, uphill battle against Riordan, who has far outpaced him in fund-raising and is better known in the state. Simon's aides say he will increase his spending on advertisements in coming weeks, and Simon said he would air spots critical of Riordan, a friend whom he has been slow to criticize on the trail.

Simon's campaign strategists, who had predicted he would become more competitive by mid-February, say they are surprised at how fast he has moved up.

"That's far beyond where I thought he'd be," said Simon consultant Sal Russo, who attributes much of the increase to the endorsement of former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who was Simon's boss in the New York U.S. attorney's office in the 1980s and does most of the talking in the candidate's TV spots.

Allan Hoffenblum, a veteran GOP analyst who is supporting Riordan, said Simon's improved position is also due to his aggressive courting of conservative voters, who rely less on ads and appearances to make up their minds. Simon, the son and namesake of Richard Nixon's Treasury secretary, has touted himself as "a true conservative Republican," vowed to never raise taxes and won endorsements from the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. and the California Pro-Life Council.

"The hard-core conservatives reach out to find out who are the candidates who are closer to them," Hoffenblum said. "Unlike most voters who sit in their house and wait for people to reach out to them, if you're a gun-toting conservative who's worried about people killing babies, you're going to go out and find out who's close to you."

Simon will tape another commercial today and is preparing to release ads in which he speaks directly about his stances. His strategists have said they introduced him via Giuliani to capture voters' attention, and now will let Simon explain why Republicans should make him their choice.

"If you start off saying, 'I'm someone you've never heard of and here's what I think,' people aren't very attentive," Russo said.

He Lets Others Do the Talking

That is clear whenever Simon hits the trail.

When he appears with other political leaders, Simon lets them do the talking. At a Giuliani news conference in Century City earlier this month, aides requested that reporters ask the former mayor only about his support for Simon.

After he heartily praised Simon and fielded questions on him, the inquiries shifted to Giuliani's own future rather than that of the candidate he was there to endorse.

At a Sacramento news conference last week announcing the support of conservative state Sen. Ray Haynes (R-Riverside), Simon barely spoke. A reporter asked him about the hottest budget issue in town--whether Davis should take up a Bush administration offer and spend $160.5 million to extend the Healthy Families program to provide coverage to parents of uninsured children.

There was a pause. "I can answer that," Haynes volunteered.

Reporters insisted that Simon respond, and the candidate admitted he needed to study the issue more.

Simon usually limits himself to one appearance a day.

On some key dates, like the day following last week's debate when the public's attention was briefly focused on the contest, Simon does not have any public appearances at all.

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