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Simon Finds Road to the Center Rocky

Politics: GOP candidate for governor angers conservatives, moderates by trying to please both.

September 09, 2002|MATEA GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Bill Simon Jr. backed away last week from his campaign's previously stated support for several gay rights measures, the GOP gubernatorial candidate not only angered gay activists, but exposed the difficulty he faces in simultaneously holding onto his conservative base and winning over moderate voters.

For the last few months, Simon has struggled to articulate his positions on issues such as global warming, domestic partnerships and driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants.

Wary of upsetting conservatives who helped him win the primary last spring, Simon has refrained from staking out a clear stance on many of those topics--frustrating the very Republicans he is afraid of losing. Meanwhile, the novice candidate has made only tentative efforts to reach out to swing voters, disappointing moderates who say that Simon is failing to extend the reach of his candidacy.

"He has somehow managed to alienate everybody," said Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College and former national Republican Party operative. "The only appeal he has is that he's not Gray Davis."

Political experts said Simon's turnaround on gay rights after pressure from religious conservatives illustrates a striking difference between how Republican and Democratic politicians must contend with positions that anger their most ideological voters. Lately, Democrats have papered over disputes on the death penalty and welfare reform in the interest of electing their candidates--although in the governor's office, Davis is under heavy pressure from liberals to sign a bill protecting farm workers' rights.

Liberals are "willing to swallow all those things for the greater good," said Ken Khachigian, a veteran Republican strategist. "Conservatives--and I'm one of them--seem on certain issues to lack the necessary political flexibility to realize the best way to have influence is to hold office."

The box in which Simon finds himself eight weeks from election day is familiar to many conservative Republicans seeking statewide office in California.

In 1998, U.S. Senate candidate Matt Fong was forced to defend his credentials as a moderate after newspapers reported that he had given $50,000 to the Traditional Values Coalition, an anti-gay and anti-abortion rights group that also criticized Simon's early support for gay rights measures last month. U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, the incumbent in that race, successfully painted Fong as an extremist and defeated him by 10 points.

'Moderate State'

Simon "does need to move to the center because California is fundamentally a moderate state," said Kevin Spillane, a GOP consultant and political director of former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan's failed gubernatorial bid.

After the Republican primary, Simon tried to do just that. With backing from the Bush administration, he declared his opposition to offshore oil drilling. And, in a speech before a nonpartisan women's organization, Simon, a practicing Catholic, said that although he opposes abortion, he would, as governor, uphold California's constitutional protection for abortions.

As he entered the fall campaign season, however, Simon's message and campaign stops appeared tailored for conservatives.

On Labor Day, he visited picnickers at the Richard Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, calling the late president "a fine public servant." The next day, he toured the Calvary Christian Center School in Sacramento, where he complained that state regulations impede home schooling.

Those moves, combined with Simon's statements last week opposing Gay Pride Day and hospital visitation rights for gay partners, worry moderates who want the Republican nominee to avoid controversial social issues.

"What's happening here is that we're obscuring what ought to be the main focus of the campaign, which is the Davis record," said Jim Hartman, the state GOP regional chairman in the Bay Area. "There's a tremendous opportunity, and a lot of us feel frustrated that we're possibly losing that opportunity."

Simon's back-and-forth on gay issues has not only aroused concern among moderates, it has failed to soothe some conservatives who said they are unsure about where he stands. Even Lyn Nofziger, a veteran conservative strategist who was touted by the campaign as a senior advisor, posted a searing critique of the candidate last week on a conservative family-values Web site.

"Questions have been created in people's minds, people who want marriage and family protected," said Randy Thomasson, executive director of the Campaign for California Families, a nonpartisan statewide group that posted Nofziger's commentary.

Simon's preoccupation with pleasing conservative supporters comes at a time when he needs to position himself as a viable choice for Democrats and unaligned voters dissatisfied with the governor, several Republican consultants said.

"You should not be worrying about your base in September," said one GOP strategist, Don Sipple, who worked on Riordan's campaign.

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