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Simon Resists Calls to Attack

With his advisors split into two camps, the GOP candidate has hesitated to play up accusations by a convicted racketeer against Gov. Davis.

October 31, 2002|Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writer

With five days left to make his case to voters, Republican Bill Simon Jr. is resisting the advice of top aides to close his race for governor with a harsh new attack on fund-raising by Gov. Gray Davis.

The struggle within Simon's campaign over strategy for the final days of the race comes as polls show he faces a steep challenge in overcoming the Democratic governor's solid lead among key voting blocs.

Simon's chief strategist, Ed Rollins, and others have pushed for a scathing new television ad that would include a convicted racketeer's newly disclosed accusations against Davis, Republicans with knowledge of the discussions said.

But for two days, Simon has hesitated even to discuss the allegations of improper fund-raising in public, much less put them in a TV spot.

Simon's reticence underscores his other option: closing out his campaign by moving away from attacks on Davis and emphasizing instead a positive agenda on schools, energy and other issues.

To make such a shift so close to election day would pose a vexing question for Simon: After eight months of weathering a brutal ad assault by Davis, is it too late for the novice GOP candidate to introduce himself to voters on his own terms?

Even some Republicans say that although Simon is unlikely to win without promoting his own agenda, neither can he get it across in the limited time left. GOP strategist Mike Madrid said Simon -- running well behind Davis among women, independents, moderates, Latinos and other key voting groups -- has no choice but to pound the governor.

"You can't introduce yourself eight days before the election," he said. "What you do is go negative and hope that suppresses turnout of your opponent's supporters."

The campaign for governor this year has been defined almost from the start by angry attacks and advertising like that under consideration by the Simon campaign. Davis spent nearly $10 million during the Republican primary to blunt the candidacy of Richard Riordan, the former Los Angeles mayor, and having done that, has continued the approach against Simon.

For much of the campaign, Simon has lacked the resources to counter Davis' message. But he has aired a substantial number of ads, nearly all of them critical of Davis, in recent weeks.

Simon's campaign has long been split into rival camps. One, led by Rollins and campaign manager Rob Lapsley, has advocated hard-charging tactics. Another, led by strategist Sal Russo, has pushed for a more cautious approach that emphasizes Simon's optimistic personal style.

Tactics aside, Simon has framed the campaign as a referendum on Davis. For months, the main theme of his TV advertising and public remarks has been that Davis is a failed governor.

"Davis spent California into a budget crisis," Simon said Wednesday at a campaign stop in Sacramento. "Whether we're talking about energy, our economy or our schools, we must recognize that all these three things are casualties of his mismanagement of our state's finances."

Day after day, Simon has singled out Davis' ethics as his biggest flaw, saying state policy is for sale to campaign donors. "Under Gray Davis," Simon says in his latest TV spot, "corruption went up."

The battle within Simon's campaign over how far to pursue the ethics attack was triggered Monday by a federal judge's unsealing of court records on allegations leveled against Davis by a convicted felon, Mark L. Nathanson.

Nathanson, a former state coastal commissioner convicted in a corruption scandal, told prosecutors in 1993 and 1994 that Davis had asked for names of people who got oceanfront building permits so Davis could ask them for campaign money.

Prosecutors found Nathanson had no credibility and concluded there was no evidence of a crime. Davis has denied any wrongdoing.

A few hours after the records were released, Simon demanded that Davis respond to Nathanson's accusations. Surrounded by a cluster of reporters and TV crews he had called to a beach in Malibu, Simon said: "Mr. Davis should reveal his calendars and notes from all meetings and interactions that he has had with Mr. Nathanson."

But Simon all but abandoned the matter at campaign stops Tuesday and Wednesday, saying nothing about it until prompted by reporters. Asked why he had dropped the topic, Simon simply repeated his remarks from Monday, offering nothing to push the story forward.

"Bill does not feel comfortable with Nathanson," a Simon advisor said. "He has not wanted to push it."

To some Republican strategists inside and outside his campaign, the Nathanson case offered Simon just the last-minute break he needed. And in an era when campaign TV ads can be produced and put on the air within hours, they are baffled that days have passed without a Simon spot on Nathanson.

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