It was a simple question I lobbed Bill Simon last May. A softball. Easy to hit.
"Are you for the death penalty?" I asked him at a Republican fund-raising event.
"I'd rather keep that off the record," the political novice replied. "I am, but I want to come up to speed first before answering on the record."
Whoaaa! Here's a conservative who wants to be the Republican nominee for governor, but can't say publicly whether he's for the death penalty? Being pro-execution is a must for any gubernatorial candidate in California, regardless of party.
Walk down any street, ask practically anybody and you'll hear a clear view of the death penalty. But not from this former federal prosecutor?
Last week, after he'd captured the GOP nomination in a stunning upset, I asked Simon again.
"I'm pro death penalty," he quickly answered. "I believe the death penalty is appropriate under certain circumstances."
What would he think of a moratorium--as there is in Illinois--until experts can determine whether there are adequate safeguards to protect innocent people from being executed?
"Not at this point," he said. "I'm kind of fond of the law as it stands. I'm comfortable with the amount of discretion a governor has with clemency." (Same position as Gov. Gray Davis.)
Why didn't he just say that last May?
Because his advisors had not thoroughly briefed him on capital punishment, Simon replied. Maybe there were tricky details that had escaped him.
"I wasn't afraid of answering your first question. What I was worried about was maybe your second or third questions that I wouldn't be competent to address because I hadn't thought it through."
But today he wouldn't duck a question on such a gut issue, would he?
"Yeah, I might. I might."
So what this story tells us about Simon is that his mouth will not be running out of control as he challenges Davis. He'll speak and step cautiously, heeding his advisors--unlike the last GOP gubernatorial nominee, Dan Lungren. Unlike Richard Riordan.
More like Ronald Reagan. The actor took direction and followed the script, although he definitely created his own story line and believed in it.
Skip the Reagan analogies being spun by Simonites, however. Yes, neither Reagan nor Simon had sought any public office before they ran for governor. They're both conservatives. They're likable. They have similar hairstyles (parted on opposite sides). But there the similarities end.
Unlike Simon, Reagan long had been politically active and was very well known to the public. He exuded warmth and also generated fire. He excited emotions.
And unlike Simon, despite folklore, Reagan never was significantly helped during the Republican primary by the Democratic governor.
It also was a far different era when Reagan trounced Gov. Pat Brown. The civil rights movement, campus rebellions and emerging antiwar protests had fractured the Democratic Party. Abortion and guns were barely mentioned. The environment was only a budding issue.
Today California Democrats are unified. And recently they've been pummeling Republican candidates with the litmus test issues of abortion rights, gun control and environmental protection.
Simon will try to keep his mouth muted about these things. Davis will try to goad him into defending his positions.
The GOP nominee favors abortion only in cases of rape, incest and threat to the mother's life. But when pressed, he'll note that abortion is legal and pledge: "I'm not going to do anything to try to disturb the law. I'm not going to be an activist governor when it comes to abortion."
This simple assurance--combined with a perpetual smile, soft voice and telegenic looks--will make him less scary than some other right-wingers.
Heeding advisors, Simon will attempt to shift every campaign conversation toward the economy, energy, education and spending.
"I can see a path [to victory]," he says. "The path is to focus on what Gray has done to the state....
"And stay humble. I don't want everybody [on the staff] running around thinking they're geniuses now that we happened to win [the primary]."
Reagan used to say it's hard to hit a home run off a soft pitch. Simon may need to swing more aggressively at pitches of all speeds.
Caution can be commendable, but heartfelt, hard-hitting declarations--vicious murderers deserve to die--can connect with voters, convey commitment and project leadership.
And we're way past getting away with "off the record."