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GOP Candidates Face Uphill Battle for Statewide Offices

Politics: Observers say Republicans need a longshot win by gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon to avoid a Democratic sweep.

March 25, 2002|MIGUEL BUSTILLO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In their newfound embrace of Simon, the GOP candidates are pinning their hopes on the possibility that like Ronald Reagan nearly four decades before him--another conservative with little political experience--Simon will prove stronger than anticipated and bridge the divide between conservatives and more moderate mainstream voters. Reagan was elected governor in 1966.

"The most vulnerable Democrat is the one at the top," said longtime Republican strategist Tony Quinn.

But in a state where Democrats hold a large lead in voter registration, and independent voters have recently sided strongly with Democrats, a sweeping Simon win, several political experts said, appears to be a longshot.

"If for some reason the conservatives realize their dream and everyone is energized by Simon and we have Reagan II, then perhaps this will be averted," UC Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain said of a Democratic shutout. "I assign almost an infinitesimally low percentage to that. I just don't see a mandate of conservatism in this state right now."

In addition to incumbency, the Democratic candidates all appear to have another important factor in their favor: money.

Angelides and Lockyer both have more than $4 million in their campaign accounts--about $4 million more in each case than their Republican rivals, former Public Utilities Commission President P. Gregory Conlon and state Sen. Ackerman.

Steve Westly, the Democratic nominee for controller, is a former EBay vice president whose personal fortune has been estimated at more than $100 million. His opponent, state Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks), is considered a maverick within his own party, and though he is easily the best known of the Republican candidates, political experts predict he will have a hard time matching Westly in fund-raising.

Assemblyman Kevin Shelley of San Francisco, who defeated former 19-year incumbent March Fong Eu in the Democratic primary for secretary of state, has major backing from labor unions, a deep source of campaign cash. His Republican opponent is former Victorville Assemblyman Keith Olberg, who has been out of office since 2000.

Even in the nominally nonpartisan race for superintendent of public instruction, Democratic state Sen. Jack O'Connell of San Luis Obispo is supported by the California Teachers Assn., one of the state's biggest campaign contributors. Republicans are rallying behind Anaheim school board member Katherine H. Smith, who outpolled the GOP's original choice for the job, Assemblywoman Lynne Leach of Walnut Creek, and faces O'Connell in a fall runoff.

Ackerman was named vice chairman of the Senate Budget Committee last year, a position that makes him one of the top Republicans in the budget process. It is his most prominent political role to date.

State Sen. Bruce McPherson (R-Santa Cruz), the GOP's nominee for lieutenant governor, at least gets to chair a committee, Public Safety. Fellow lawmakers say McPherson, a former newspaper publisher whose gun-control and pro-choice views make him one of the most liberal Republicans in the Legislature, got the assignment because Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco) likes him.

Both Ackerman and McPherson endorsed Riordan in the gubernatorial primary. So did Gary Mendoza, the GOP nominee for insurance commissioner and a partner at the former mayor's law firm, Riordan & McKinzie.

After the backlash caused by Proposition 187, the 1994 measure to limit public services to illegal immigrants that was supported by former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, GOP leaders sought to recruit candidates who presented a more inclusive image. But those efforts have largely failed, lately because many Republican women and Latinos have found better opportunities with the Bush administration.

In the future, some experts predict, the GOP may have to turn to Congress for statewide candidates, although most representatives have little name identification outside their home districts. Or the party may need to lean heavily on inexperienced celebrities such as actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has expressed an interest in entering California politics.

That is, unless Simon can right the Republican ship this fall.

The latest Field Poll had Davis and Simon in a virtual tie. More important in a state where a growing number of voters decline to register with a political party, it also showed many independent voters still have no opinion of Simon, which suggests he has an opportunity to widen his base of support.

"He's a blank slate to many voters," said Field Poll Director Mark DiCamillo. "If he can get out of the box now and position himself as more than the antiabortion conservative Davis will make him out to be, then things could get very interesting."

But DiCamillo noted, "The Republicans are in an all-or-nothing situation."

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