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A Lose-Lose Campaign

September 06, 2002

GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon Jr. has run a shockingly awful campaign. Its one plank, Simon's business acumen, has been splintered to toothpicks by a $78-million fraud judgment against his company and unofficial accusations that he took $1 million in improper tax deductions. This week, Simon capped it by heading off to San Francisco, gay capital of the United States, the day after he disavowed his signature on a gay-rights questionnaire that his campaign had answered sympathetically. Did no one in Simon's scheduling office have his brain turned on?

Given Simon's ineptness, Gov. Gray Davis should be sailing away with the campaign. But no. Voters apparently so dislike Davis that he's only seven points ahead of Simon in a Field Poll survey released Thursday, despite his incumbency and huge campaign chest.

There's more. The number of voters who can't make up their minds usually declines as the election nears. Not so in this weirdest of governor's races. The number of undecideds measured by the Field survey actually increased, to 22%, up from 16%. The more voters see these candidates, the less they're sure they want to vote for either one.

The dislike for Davis is not new. Reasons range from his handling of the energy and budget crises to his crass and constant fund-raising, which too often seems linked to his policy positions. Witness his big raises for the well-organized prison guards, who contributed to him handsomely, versus his back of the hand, salarywise, to other state employees.

The voters are the losers in this campaign. So are the ballot propositions that are likely to be rejected if the turnout is small. California, the most populous, richest state, ought to be able to do better--but that's an analysis for another time. Simon must improve his campaign, not just for his own pride but because voters in November deserve a real choice.

Simon had not run for office or even voted consistently before he filed for governor. He was stiff and uncertain at first. But political observers figured he would adapt as the campaign progressed, tutored by some of the best political consultants money could buy. There has been a succession of them.

The transformation never happened.

First Simon refused for weeks to release his income tax returns and then gave in so clumsily and grudgingly that he got no benefit. It went downhill from there.

As a result, Simon has been unable to give Californians a clear vision of what he wants to do as governor, if he has one. Confronting the incumbent Davis, it's up to Simon to make it a race. In the two months left, perhaps Simon should fire his remaining high-priced advisors and let voters see whether there's any there there.

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