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For Simon, Naughty or Nice Race?

Politics: GOP candidate for governor is facing pressure to follow Davis' lead and go on attack. He's reportedly balked at some assertive strategies.

June 15, 2002|MARK Z. BARABAK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After engineering an upset in the March primary, strategists for California gubernatorial hopeful Bill Simon Jr. are once again defying convention--this time by doing nothing.

For the last 11 days, Gov. Gray Davis has been alone on the television airwaves, most of that time assailing Republican Simon in a spot blaming his mismanagement for the taxpayer bailout of a failed savings and loan. It is the sort of first strike that Davis, a Democrat, used to devastating effect last winter, when his attack advertising helped topple Richard Riordan and nudge Simon to his longshot victory.

It is also the sort of assault that typically summons an immediate response, on the widely held theory that any attack that goes unanswered will inevitably stay fixed in the minds of voters.

In fact, the Simon camp is preparing to air its own television advertising, perhaps as early as next week. But the lag between attack and response has stirred further consternation in Republican circles, where many fault Simon for getting off to a slow and stumbling start after his March victory. It also points to a split in the GOP--and within Simon's ranks--over strategy and, specifically, how aggressive the challenger should be in attacking the Democratic incumbent.

On one side are friends, family members and Simon's top campaign advisors, who believe that one of the candidate's strongest assets is his image as a congenial conservative. The Republican hopeful "has a manner that people like ... and we have no intention of ruining it," said Jeff Flint, a Simon advisor. But many of the Republican Party's most-practiced strategists, and a handful of advisors inside the Simon camp, believe the candidate has been too passive and are trying to coax him, against his nature, to hit Davis harder.

"He can't be the schoolmarm in this campaign," said Ken Khachigian, a veteran GOP strategist who is not affiliated with the Simon effort. "He's up against a tough, ruthless, consummately focused organization that will put their foot on his throat and never let up. So this is not the time to be a choirboy."

Further complicating matters, the wrangling comes as Simon has begun reaching out to women and environmentalists by vowing to uphold legalized abortion, push for a permanent California ban on offshore oil drilling and support a $1-billion park bond measure. The steps are intended to broaden his political appeal--registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by roughly 1.5 million voters in California. But the moves have been noted with unhappiness by some activists, who say they conflict with the Simon who billed himself as the one true conservative in the GOP primary.

Be Yourself, Some Say

"Bill Simon should look at the pages of those who either won or came close and can live with themselves because they didn't adapt or change," said John Gizzi, political editor of Human Events, a Washington journal of conservative opinion. "[George] Deukmejian comes to mind. [Ronald] Reagan.... Those who are themselves instead of trying to be something they are not are usually more successful in politics."

Flint brushed aside concerns about eroding conservative support. "There's nothing like defeating Gray Davis to excite the base," he said.

Some of the tensions the Republican nominee faces are inherent in any campaign when the candidate shifts from the primary, where appeals are generally aimed at the party's hardest-core supporters, to the wider audience of a general election. It is a pivot that is difficult for even the most deft politician, let alone a first-time candidate like Simon. For him, aides say, every day has been an education in the realities of campaign rough-and-tumble.

Simon has struggled to balance his personal instincts with those of political strategists pressing him to more aggressively attack Davis. Two of his newest advisors, Sean Walsh and Rob Lapsley, worked in the primary for Secretary of State Bill Jones, one of the more pugnacious of the Republican contestants.

According to inside accounts, Simon privately has lashed out against those he felt were pushing him too hard to campaign in the Jones mode.

"Bill is much more comfortable talking about governing," said Sal Russo, Simon's top strategist and the architect of his primary win. He likened Simon to candidates such as Jack Kemp and Reagan, urging him to emulate their sunnier approach to politics.

As a result of his advisors' conflicting impulses, Simon has often been slow to respond to events. The Oracle contracting scandal was front-page news for days before Simon seized upon the affair, which has since become a focus of his assault on the governor and his aggressive fund-raising tactics. After Davis' television attack hit the airwaves late last week, Simon aides bickered in a nasty series of e-mails over how--and whether--to react. The argument continued for days.

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