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No Love for Simon in Republican Stronghold

One in an occasional series of conversations with California voters.

October 28, 2002|Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writer

BAKERSFIELD — Debbie Lueck winces when breakfast conversation at Zingo's truck-stop diner turns to Gray Davis and Bill Simon Jr.

"They're both slime," she said over a plate of biscuits and gravy. "You can't trust either one of them."

Simon, the Republican candidate for governor, seems "sneaky" to the 42-year-old bank-vault registrar.

"He's hiding stuff," she said. "He's got an agenda that he doesn't just spit out and tell you what it is."

In every election she can remember, Lueck voted for the Republican at the top of the ticket: George W. Bush, Dan Lungren, Bob Dole. But next week, she plans to skip the contest for governor and cast votes only in races lower on the ballot. To her, Simon is no better than Davis.

"Their integrity is in the gutter," she said. "Both of them."

Lueck and many other Republicans in this GOP stronghold knew little about Simon when they voted for him in the March primary, apart from his endorsement by former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.

Given what they have learned since then, many Republicans here view Simon as a flawed -- in some cases unacceptable -- alternative to the Democratic governor.

"They're both clowns in my opinion," said Sam Stewart, 40, a Republican motorcycle mechanic who plans to vote for Simon despite his low regard for the Pacific Palisades investment banker.

The lack of enthusiasm for Simon in Bakersfield illustrates the party's difficulty in drawing a strong turnout of Republicans in the Nov. 5 election.

"I don't see them voting for Gray Davis; I just see them staying home," said GOP consultant Allan Hoffenblum.

Simon's lackluster support within his own party mirrors the trouble that Davis faces with many Democrats, particularly liberals. Among likely voters, only two out of three Republicans support Simon, as just two out of three Democrats back Davis, according to a poll released last week by the Public Policy Institute of California.

But in a state with 1.4 million more Democrats than Republicans, tepid backing among party loyalists poses a more serious challenge to Simon -- especially with polls thus far showing Davis well ahead among independents. So a strong Republican turnout is crucial for Simon in Bakersfield and other GOP bastions in the Central Valley.

To gauge likely Republican turnout, Bakersfield GOP strategist Mark Abernathy keeps tabs on applications for absentee ballots in the area. So far, he said, the party's share is falling below expectations.

"Republican enthusiasm seems to be low," he said.

Simon's campaign team is counting on a final spurt of TV ads bashing Davis to galvanize Republicans. Indeed, most of Simon's firepower in the general election has hewn to the notion that if voters can be reminded that they dislike Davis, they will enthusiastically endorse Simon.

Yet, however unpopular Davis may be, it's clear that much of Simon's support is halfhearted in this Republican farm and oil region. Republican housewife Laura Lamas of Pumpkin Center, just south of Bakersfield, said Simon "doesn't know what's going on" in agriculture.

"What in his background gives him the knowledge of what's going on in this valley, this breadbasket?" she asked as she climbed out of a pickup to buy dog food at Bugni Bros. Hardware and Feed.

Among party loyalists, what has most wounded Simon is a perception -- fed in large part by Davis attack ads -- that he is a dishonest businessman.

"I don't trust him as far as I can throw him," Republican hairstylist Christy White, 20, said while a co-worker did her nails at a Bakersfield salon. Outside the salon, Lori Christian, a Republican elementary schoolteacher, said: "I just don't feel like he's real honest." Both White and Christian are tilting toward Davis.

Nonetheless, Simon is heavily favored in Bakersfield. Republicans -- even those who lose statewide -- typically trounce Democratic rivals here. In the 1998 governor's race, Lungren lost statewide by 20 points, but clobbered Davis in Bakersfield, 58% to 40%.

Many Bakersfield voters are from the families of Dust Bowl farmers who migrated from the South and Midwest in the 1930s. Others are transplants from Texas, Louisiana and other oil states; they followed jobs to the Bakersfield area, where bobbing pumps are as common as crop dusters.

For the most part, Simon is philosophically in sync with the city's conservative electorate, notably in his opposition to abortion rights and gun control.

"This is Kern County; everybody and their uncle's got a gun," said John Carlson, 56, a barber who manages a trailer park. "I've got three of them."

At Carlson's barber shop next to a lumberyard in hardscrabble Oildale, on the northern outskirts of town, a portrait of John Wayne hangs on the mirror next to a Veterans of Foreign Wars sticker.

Carlson, a Vietnam vet, is a loyal Republican who blames Davis for a spike in power costs during the energy crisis. The governor "bankrupted a lot of people over that energy stuff," he said. "It was just awful."

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