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Bush Stand-In Turns Out for Simon Benefit

As the president joins other GOP candidates at rallies, his housing secretary stresses that the administration stands behind Simon.

October 19, 2002|Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writer

SALINAS — As Republican candidates in Missouri and Minnesota basked in the political embrace of President Bush on Friday, Bill Simon Jr. stumped in California lettuce country with a substitute: U.S. Housing Secretary Mel Martinez.

"I bring you greetings from our president," Martinez told party loyalists eating huevos rancheros at Rosita's Mexican diner.

Minutes later, Martinez said Bush's absence from California in the final weeks of the 2002 campaign should not be taken as a sign of any lack of confidence in Simon's bid for governor.

"He may not feel he needs to come," Martinez said. "There may be other races that are closer."

Indeed, Martinez is the latest Bush emissary to campaign for Simon in California as the president darts from state to state raising money and whipping up excitement for candidates in tighter races that are a higher priority to the White House.

Bush's top concerns are to restore Republican control of the Senate, protect the party's majority in the House and elect GOP governors in states crucial to his own reelection race in 2004. On Friday, he campaigned with Senate hopefuls Jim Talent in Missouri and Norm Coleman in Minnesota.

"In the last two weeks before the election, you send the president into the closest races where he can do the most good," said Charles Cook, editor of the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan political newsletter in Washington. "The California governor's race is not one of the closest races, and it's not where he can do the most good."

So on the stump with Simon are Bush surrogates like Martinez, whom Cook described as "pretty far down the food chain."

The national GOP's dim view of the Simon campaign was apparent in a remark Thursday by Rep. Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. At the National Press Club in Washington, he called Simon's effort "the single worst-run race in the country."

Simon spokesman Mark Miner said the congressman "should be focused on congressional races instead of a governor's race he knows nothing about."

At the campaign stop in Salinas, Simon was less blunt when asked to respond to the scathing assessment of his campaign by a national party leader.

"We think we've run a good, strong campaign," Simon said after breakfast at Rosita's.

With Martinez at his side, Simon also said he was "grateful for the tremendous support that we've received from the Bush administration." He recalled that the President, his wife, Laura Bush, and several Cabinet members had hosted fund-raisers for him in California.

Though Martinez, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao and Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi have campaigned with Simon, others have been low-key. Education Secretary Rod Paige and Commerce Secretary Don Evans hosted private Simon fund-raisers, but did not appear in public with the candidate. On Monday in San Francisco, the media will be barred from a Simon fund-raiser hosted by a Republican Party luminary, Christie Todd Whitman, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator.

Bush Paige and Evans raised several million dollars for Simon on two trips to California. White House spokesman Ken Lisaius declined to say whether the president might return before the Nov. 5 election, but state GOP leaders do not expect another visit.

Yet Simon's campaign is in dire need of financial help. Even with the presence of Simon and a Cabinet secretary flown in from Washington for the breakfast fund-raiser at Rosita's, the campaign charged only $100 a plate, and payment was optional. Simon and Martinez flew from there to Sacramento to raise more money.

Simon, who has loaned $9 million of his family fortune to the campaign, declined to say whether he would put more money into the race.

His advisors, who once hoped to get as much as $15 million from the Republican National Committee to replenish the nearly empty campaign coffers, now expect no more than $1 million -- enough to sustain less than a week of TV ads statewide.

RNC spokesman Jim Dyke said national GOP leaders remain committed to Simon.

"To say we're just sort of vaguely serving California for appearances' [sake] would be incorrect," he said.

Republicans have fared poorly in recent California elections. Bush lost the state by 1.3 million votes in 2000, and analysts say he faces steep odds in 2004. But Bush cannot overtly write off Simon's campaign without risking a backlash from the state's wealthy campaign donors, whose support he needs for his reelection race.

"For the Republican Party, California is a big checkbook," Cook said.

At Rosita's, Bush's Housing secretary played up the importance of the California governor's race. "I'm sent to places where we think we can make a difference, where it's a viable race, and clearly that's the case here," Martinez said.

Martinez urged the donors to help Simon get voters to the polls on election day.

"One thing we know in Florida, and we learned it the hard way, is that every vote counts," said Martinez, a Cuban American from Orlando.

Martinez touched on housing policy, saying it was important to strip away state regulations that constrain home builders. Simon picked up the same theme.

"We're not building enough homes, to the tune of about 100,000 homes every single year," Simon said. "I will change that if I'm fortunate enough to be elected governor."

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