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Money Could Be the Best Message for Millionaire Simon

Candidate could campaign on not having to raise funds like Davis.

June 12, 2002|BILL WHALEN | Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, worked on Richard Riordan's gubernatorial exploratory committee in 2001.

The latest twist in the governor's race is Republican challenger Bill Simon Jr.'s opposition to new oil drilling off the California coast, a stance that puts him at odds with the Bush administration. It made for big, bold headlines. And, for Simon, it was the first spate of positive news his campaign has managed to spawn since he captured the GOP nomination three months ago.

But in the final analysis, it's not Simon's posturing and a couple of days of good press that matter most. Rather, it's what other pitches he has in his repertoire besides this one policy curveball, and how much of his own fortune he is willing to put behind his attempt to come out a winner.

Simon's newfound wearing of the green (environmental, that is) is hardly epochal. Think back a dozen years to when then-Sen. Pete Wilson broke ranks with another President Bush over the same topic, thus guaranteeing Wilson the crucial votes of environmentalists in the governor's race.

Any politico will tell you that Californians will cheer oil rigs off their coast the same day they welcome corporate sponsorship of Yosemite's Half Dome. So this pronouncement isn't likely to cost Simon any votes.

What Simon has created is an opportunity to forge his way into the voting mainstream and, in doing so, inoculate his candidacy against charges of extremism that the Davis attack machine is certain to launch. If Simon doesn't want to drill off the coast, in what other ways is he not a Democrat's stereotype of a conservative Republican?

But that requires the Republican candidate to again break with conservative orthodoxy--only, next time, risking a rift that resonates stronger than offshore drilling.

Simon could, for example, side with the president on amnesty for illegal immigrants. He could soften his stance on gun control. He could even pick a fight with cultural conservatives, as then-candidate George W. Bush did in October 1999 when he made a critical allusion to Robert Bork's "Slouching Towards Gomorrah." Such a ploy risks alienating loyal Republican voters. But given the California GOP's inability in recent elections to build beyond a conservative base, maybe it's time for a risk.

Just as it's time for Simon to do one other thing: Raise the stakes in this race by staking his campaign with some of his own fortune. After all, what's the sense in taking stands designed to make the candidate more competitive if the campaign lacks the resources to compete for precious air time against a better-financed incumbent?

This is especially true now that the Davis campaign is buying as much as $12 million in ads.

Again, there's a risk associated with this. For nearly four years, Gov. Gray Davis has justified his relentless pursuit of campaign donations by reasoning that a millionaire might try to buy his or her way into the governor's office. The moment Simon cuts his campaign a large check, Davis will say, "I told you so."

There is, however, a way for the Republican candidate to avoid this trap. Why not hold a press conference and announce that Simon will offer up one of his own (presumably untainted) dollars for every dollar Davis has received as governor from special interests; Simon's good money versus Davis' bad? And that Simon will continue the dollar-for-dollar match until election day.

This would send a positive message to Republican donors who fear that the current money advantage is Davis' ultimate trump card. As an added bonus, it could shift the focus from Simon's wealth to one of Davis' largest vulnerabilities, his dubious ties to fund-raising.

Talk about a twist--turning the millionaire label into an asset, not a liability. But that might be Bill Simon's best route to victory: a surprise for the press around every corner.

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