Whether he's playing with a model F-22, handling a wooden guitar frame or shaking the hands of senior citizens and high school students who have never heard of him, Bill Simon Jr. has a beatific grin on his face that makes him look like a kid still thrilled with a new toy.
It's the same smile he had five months ago, when he sat at single digits in the polls and was written off as the most unlikely major candidate for governor in years. But even though his standing has changed dramatically--Simon is even with or ahead of the erstwhile front-runner in the Republican primary, former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan--the rookie candidate has not.
Simon still greets strangers at campaign events with the cry, "How are you, buddy?"--though now some people recognize him. He keeps talking about improving California's infrastructure, and, improbably, seems enthusiastic about the topic. And whether he is talking about his four children or attacking his friend Riordan on taxes, he always, always smiles.
"He may be a heck of a lot more polished than a lot of people think," said Allan Hoffenblum, a veteran GOP analyst who backs Riordan but says he has been impressed by Simon. "There's no doubt he's disciplined; he stayed on track."
Simon certainly brings his own set of quirks to campaign events. When asked about issues he is not prepared to discuss--whether it is extending health insurance or the behavior of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power during the energy crisis--Simon will confess he does not know enough to answer the question.
He usually defers to other speakers at campaign events. On Thursday, at a news conference to unveil an initiative to increase the homeowners' tax exemption he is sponsoring with the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer Assn., for example, Simon made only brief remarks before giving most of the applause lines over to the anti-tax group's president.
And Simon has a penchant for unprompted quips, followed with a slap on the back and a hearty laugh that overwhelms whatever response he may elicit. At Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, he marveled at how the principal could control her 4,000 students.
"I have a hard enough time keeping track of four," the candidate said. "What's your secret? Handcuffs?" he laughed.
During a tour of Oakland's Chinatown, an Asian supporter pointed out the number of banks and said Chinese people like saving money.
"Not just gambling?" Simon quipped. He laughed again.
Simon's handlers have cultivated the candidate's Boy Scout image, repeatedly calling him "the candidate of ideas." Some were unnerved when word of a mildly off-color joke of Simon's recently made it into print.
The Bill Simon the public is most likely to see is the one on display Friday outside the Santa Monica cable television studio where he had just taped an interview.
Asked by a swarm of reporters about how it feels to be seen as the front-runner, wooed by the White House, Simon replied: "You have to say, 'Wow.'
"You've got to be happy, but you've got to say to yourself, 'Let's stay with the campaign.' At the end of the day, I tell all our guys and gals to stay humble and stay on message."
The wide-eyed campaign persona also permeates Simon's television ads.
A soft-spoken Simon speaks directly to the camera--even when attacking Riordan for his past support of Democrats.
Simon's handlers say that they consciously chose to provide a "softer" attack spot than is normal, believing that voters are turned off by standard negative commercials and want a more positive tone.
The handlers also wanted voters to get a long look at Simon, even if it is filtered through the television screen.
"With Bill, they look at him and say he's honest," spokesman Jamie Fisfis said. "He's a very disciplined candidate. It helps that he's actually passionate about what he's saying.... He has become a very skilled candidate in that regard."
In some ways, Simon, a Pacific Palisades financier who has never before run for elected office, has proved to be a smoother campaigner than Riordan, who despite his eight years in elected office has been knocked off message repeatedly in the last few weeks.
Simon is on message even when no one cares.
At a senior citizens center in Hollywood last month, he circled the room shaking the hands of silver-haired men and women who were clearly more interested in their lunches.
It was not a friendly crowd for a self-proclaimed "conservative Republican"--some booed when President Bush's name was mentioned.
The senior citizens ate their lunches and chatted with one another during Simon's speech.
"If you remember one thing today about Bill Simon," he said, "it's that I'm the one who will lower taxes."
This week he found more receptive audiences on a tour of small businesses that he said would prosper under his economic stimulus plan--largely a capital gains tax cut, coupled with rolling back regulations and reforming workers' compensation.