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Simon, Davis Clash on Issues and Style

Debate: Challenger gives sweeping indictment of governor, who hammers back on abortion, guns.


Gray Davis and Bill Simon Jr. clashed over ethics, guns, the economy and the environment Monday in a scrappy gubernatorial debate that highlighted their differing styles as much as their disparate stances.

Republican Simon, seizing on his first face-to-face meeting with the incumbent, offered a sweeping indictment of the governor's nearly four years in office. He condemned the state of the public schools, California's business climate and Davis' personal probity, pledging to "do better, a lot better" if elected Nov. 5.

Democrat Davis, in turn, offered a virtual point-by-point dissection of Simon's positions on issues such as abortion and gun control, asserting that his GOP rival is out of step with the values of mainstream California. "I want to move us forward," Davis said. "Mr. Simon wants to move us backward and to the right."

There were no major gaffes and no startling revelations during the hourlong session, suggesting nothing that would immediately change the dynamic of the race with 28 days to go.

The session, hosted by the Los Angeles Times and held at its downtown headquarters, is so far the only debate scheduled between the two major-party nominees.

As promised, the Green Party candidate for governor, Peter Camejo, tried to enter the building about 45 minutes before the noon debate. He had been invited as a guest of Simon after The Times declined to ask Camejo or three other minor-party candidates to participate onstage.

Camejo quietly left the building after being turned away at the check-in desk, then joined a few dozen supporters in a demonstration on the sidewalk outside the newspaper.

Inside, Davis and Simon managed for the most part to be civil, but beneath that veneer their animosity occasionally showed through.

Their sharpest exchange occurred roughly midway through the debate, when each candidate was given the opportunity to directly question his rival.

Simon asked Davis, whose prodigious fund-raising has been an issue in the contest, whether he ever accepted a campaign contribution in his government office. Taking money under those circumstances would be illegal.

Davis--who served as an assemblyman, state controller and lieutenant governor before winning the state's top job four years ago--replied that he had always "conducted myself within the law."

He then added a sharp rejoinder: "You're not in any position to question anyone's ethics, Mr. Simon.... Do not throw rocks if you live in a glass house."

Simon, an investment banker whose business dealings have engendered several controversies, angrily rejected Davis' insinuation as "false and misleading in every regard."

The discussion briefly carried over after the debate, in the press briefing room outside the Times auditorium. Davis said he had "no recollection of every doing that" when asked by reporters about accepting contributions in his state office.

The Simon campaign asserted that one of its backers, a police and sheriff's group, gave $10,000 to Davis in his lieutenant governor's office during his last run for governor. The Simon campaign provided no proof, however, and Davis aides dismissed the charge as a campaign stunt.

The back-and-forth was one of the few to strike sparks in a session that served mostly to accentuate the understated, buttoned-down demeanor of the two leading gubernatorial hopefuls. Each man was meticulously coiffed and they wore nearly identical dark suits, white shirts and red ties.

Davis addressed the charisma question when asked why he was so unpopular with his fellow Democratic legislators in Sacramento. "Californians have entertainers, rock stars and athletes to entertain and inspire them," Davis replied. Political officeholders are expected simply "to get the job done," he said. "... I'm doing my job. I would like that people like me, but as long as my wife likes me, I'll live with that."

Davis returned to that theme of experience and competency throughout the debate, sometimes in a condescending way. "It's all very nice to talk the talk, but I've walked the walk," the governor said at one point, criticizing Simon--who is making his first try for office--for his failure to vote in several past elections.

At another point, Davis spoke of the difficulty of closing the state's recent $24-billion budget gap and criticized Simon for declining to say how he would have done it. "Welcome to the big time, Mr. Simon," the Democrat taunted. "The people of the state expect governors to make the tough decisions, not run from them."

Simon repeatedly sought to turn Davis' incumbency into a liability, suggesting that the problem facing Sacramento is "business as usual."

"What I want to bring is a breath of fresh air," Simon said, starting with a more rigorous ethical standard.

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