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In Final Weeks, Candidates Seek to Highlight Opponent's Weaknesses

October 08, 2002|MICHAEL FINNEGAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As Gov. Gray Davis and his Republican challenger Bill Simon Jr. sparred Monday for the first time, they offered a glimpse at the main lines of attack each will pursue for the final four weeks of the race.

For Simon, the goal is to paint the Democratic incumbent as an unethical career politician whose bungling of the energy and fiscal crises has damaged California's economy.

For Davis, the aim is to cast Simon as a dishonest businessman whose conservative stands on guns, abortion and other issues would take California "backward and to the right."

With polls finding voters largely unhappy with both candidates, the harsh exchanges suggest each will continue to offer voters a host of reasons to dislike and mistrust his rival. At the same time, however, they confront the question of how to motivate their supporters with positive images of their candidacies and goals for the office.

Strategists said Monday that Simon may do that by highlighting his family and emphasizing his views on education, while Davis will trumpet the social issues agenda, where he is closer to most Californians than Simon.

The two men enter the key stretch of the race with far different resources to carry out that double-edged mission; Davis' fund-raising, while providing Simon with an opening to criticize him, also has armed the incumbent with more than $20 million for the final weeks. Simon has barely a fifth of that on hand.

Both candidates already are doing so in television commercials. In Simon's latest ad, he says Davis is "corrupted" by campaign money. In a new Davis ad, the governor says a Simon company faces a lawsuit for "defrauding the post office."

Yet for all the charges and countercharges, the Times-sponsored debate also demonstrated contrasts on issues that could play a larger part in the final stage of the race. Davis, for instance, can be expected to keep up his social issues drumbeat until the election.

"I'm strong pro-choice; he's against a woman's right to choose," Davis said. "I do vote for sensible gun control; he's fought it."

USC political science professor Sherry Bebitch Jeffe said Davis "did what he wanted to do, which was to paint Bill Simon as out of step with the electorate."

It's a strategy that worked well for Davis in his 1998 race against another conservative, Dan Lungren, and for Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer in her race that year against GOP challenger Matt Fong.

But Davis also is broadening his effort to other social issues. On Monday, for example, he cited his approval of new family leave and stem cell research bills; Simon opposed both of them.

On the environment, a topic Simon has used to reach beyond his conservative base, Davis criticized Simon for opposing a bill, signed by the governor, that will curb tailpipe emissions to fight global warming.

For his part, Simon repeated his vow to enforce gun and abortion laws already on the books, but was more nuanced on the other issues; rather than denounce the family leave and global warming bill, as he has in the past, Simon expressed support for their objectives, taking exceptions instead to details in the legislation.

Political experts predicted that approach would define Simon's stance on those questions in the coming weeks. "The idea is to really express a lot of empathy for the goals so you're not coming across as a harsh conservative," said political science professor Bruce Cain of UC Berkeley.

But Simon's main vehicle for reaching out to moderates, particularly women, is education. While short on details for his plans to improve California schools, he blamed Davis on Monday for the "2 million children trapped in their failing schools" and pledged more "accountability."

State Republican Party spokesman Rob Stutzman said it was no accident that Simon described himself in the debate not just as a "successful businessman" and former prosecutor, but also as a father and "family man."

The point, he said, was to offer a contrast with Davis, who is married but has no children. In a larger sense, the point is to suggest that Simon's life gives him more empathy for the issues faced by voters.

"To the extent that voters believe you're better prepared to lead if you have life experiences that are common to most Californians, that helps voters better identify with--and be drawn to--Bill Simon as a candidate," he said. "It also helps contrast Bill Simon, family man-philanthropist, with Gray Davis, bloodless-career-obsessed-politician."

Veteran GOP consultant Allan Hoffenblum said he expects the Simon campaign's final thrust will be to "humanize him so that he's not some right-wing nut or bungling businessman."

"What he needs to do is create a contrast," Hoffenblum said. "It's one thing to attack. It's another thing to say this is what I would do differently." But Simon's ability to get his message across has been hampered by a shortage of money for television ads. Campaign finance reports filed Monday show that Davis has maintained a distinct fund-raising advantage.

The governor had about $21.3 million available in his campaign treasury at the end of September, almost five times more than his challenger. Simon had nearly $4.3 million in the bank on Sept. 30.

The Simon campaign coffers would have been nearly empty if the candidate had not loaned $4 million to his effort last month. The loan has enabled Simon to resume buying television ads after barely running any during a summer onslaught of Davis spots.

Because Monday's debate could represent the last opportunity for Simon to speak to a statewide television audience for free, money becomes increasingly important from this point on.

As a result, the key question is whether the GOP candidate will lend his campaign millions more to boost his visibility on television.

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Times staff writer Jeffrey A. Rabin contributed to this report.

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