SACRAMENTO — As the gubernatorial campaign of Republican Bill Simon Jr. presses through its roughest patch, aides to the candidate say they are exhausted but relieved, and hopeful that they have now put the worst behind them.
"The past two weeks was a trial by fire, and two things happen when you go through a trial by fire," said Sean Walsh, a GOP communications strategist advising the campaign. "One, you get stronger. And two, you get wiser."
That fire has been intense for the Simon camp in recent days: His top campaign leadership was reshuffled for the fourth time; national Republican leaders came to town to take measure of his organization; and he resisted releasing his tax returns, then relented, only to face withering criticism for the way he handled the disclosure.
Internally, the campaign also has been riven by dissension and burdened by a staff that is nearly twice the size of Gov. Gray Davis' reelection team.
All of that put Simon's campaign staff through enormous strain, aides said, as they have shifted jobs and adjusted to new bosses even as they are trying to plot out a strategy for the fall.
Still, many members of Simon's campaign team said they felt optimistic as they ended the week, confident that their candidate has shown he has paid his fair share of taxes. And although they are bracing for a barrage of aggressive television commercials from Davis on the subject, the Republican candidate's top advisors say their organization has been strengthened by the attacks.
"You kind of bear down and bore right through the story and take your hits," said a top aide who did not want to be named. "OK, we got whacked. But it won't be long before Gray Davis is taking his hits."
If the mood inside Simon's camp is one of tired relief, however, outside of the organization, many top political observers--Republicans as well as Democrats--say the campaign still needs to demonstrate command over the race.
"I think they clearly need to get back on offense," said Republican consultant Kevin Spillane, who was political director for Richard Riordan's gubernatorial bid. "They've been thrown off stride."
Campaign insiders acknowledge that in the last week, especially, they have been on the defensive. The staff worked 14-hour days fielding questions about Simon's finances, even as they tried to plot out a strategy to expand their candidate's appeal over the next few months.
"It was kind of like bad medicine we had to take," said one member of the campaign team.
Seeking to put the best face on recent events, many Simon aides argue that the pressure actually served a valuable purpose, forcing the team to confront internal divisions that have flared publicly throughout the summer. The Republican National Committee meeting in San Francisco in mid-July, when GOP leaders came to question campaign officials about their direction, was viewed with much trepidation internally, several said. A general sense of relief set in once the meetings were over, and Rob Lapsley, the newest campaign manager, was put into place.
"After the RNC, everyone was tired of fighting," an aide said.
At times, the pressure of the last few weeks appeared to wipe the grin off Simon's face as well. He snapped at reporters who questioned his rules for reviewing his tax returns and tried time and again to brush off questions on that subject.
By week's end, however, he was attempting to buoy supporters and staff.
"I feel good," Simon told supporters Thursday during a campaign stop in Stockton, where he faced his fourth deluge of tax return questions. "We're having a good week, and it's going to get even better."
On Friday, Simon kept smiling during a visit to a Chevron mini-mart in Oakland, where two dozen protesters chanting, "Pay your taxes!" greeted him from the sidewalk as he pulled up in a dark SUV.
As eight uniformed police officers held back the shouting demonstrators, Simon made it through his stump speech, speaking over catcalls and chants of "Shame on you, simple Simon." A small knot of supporters tried to drown out his detractors by yelling, "We love you, Bill!"
One of the candidate's tactics for facing questions on his personal finances last week was to show a new toughness and anger toward Davis--a striking contrast to the gentle, soft-spoken manner that Simon has typically displayed on the stump.
On the John & Ken radio call-in show Friday on KFI-AM in Los Angeles, Simon adopted the tone of voice of a man who has grabbed a rival by the collar.
"Gray Davis is in big trouble," he said. "I'm going to beat him on Nov. 5. You watch. People underestimated me in the primary too. They make a big mistake when they underestimate Bill Simon."