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Another New Start for Simon

Politics: He vows at state GOP convention that he'll finish strong. 'We're on the verge of a surge!'


Gubernatorial hopeful Bill Simon Jr. sought to rally Republican loyalists Saturday with a pungent assault on Democrat Gray Davis, acknowledging at the same time the skepticism weighing on his underdog campaign.

With just over five weeks left until election day, Simon vowed to invigorate his effort with a new wave of television advertising and an effort to reach beyond the kind of party faithful who flocked to the state GOP convention in Garden Grove. But there were few signs of how he intended to do so. Speaking to reporters after headlining Saturday's luncheon, Simon expressed opposition to several bills just signed into law by Gov. Davis, saying he would have vetoed measures to encourage stem cell research, expand family leave and crack down on firearms--all positions with broad appeal to California's philosophical middle.

Privately, the campaign acknowledged it was expecting get-out-the-vote help soon--and possibly cash and an endorsement--from the National Rifle Assn.

Throughout the convention, which began Friday, Simon's advisors and state party operatives strived, with varying degrees of success, to put on a show of unity and good cheer.

Working behind the scenes, GOP leaders managed to quash a dissident group's effort to embarrass President Bush and his California allies in a feud over internal party operations and the president's appointment of federal judges. Resolutions on the two matters were tabled through parliamentary means.

But the Simon team was less successful papering over the dissent within its own camp, hosting a news conference that featured his feuding advisors scarcely bothering to hide their mutual animosity. They acknowledged a failure to establish an image of Simon in the minds of most voters and skirted questions about the financial commitment the multimillionaire candidate is prepared to make to his own candidacy. So far, Simon has loaned his campaign roughly $9 million and advisors said only that they are convinced they will have the money needed "to effectively communicate" during the campaign's final stretch, as strategist Sal Russo put it.

The best news, Russo said, was that Simon remains competitive despite repeated missteps and millions of dollars in negative Davis advertising--a theme the campaign promised to take to the airwaves and Simon enunciated in Saturday's keynote.

The buoyant candidate arrived at the convention hotel to a marching band's oom-pah choruses of "Louie, Louie." He took two passes through the atrium lobby, grinning and glad-handing his way amid a throng of sign-waving supporters. "Time for a surge, don't you think?" he asked one well-wisher. "We're on the verge of a surge!"

In his formal remarks Simon flayed Davis for everything from the state electricity crisis--here the lights were dimmed in the hotel ballroom in a bit of theatrics--to his budget policies to his aggressive fund-raising.

"In 38 days, we are going to bring new leadership to California," Simon told the audience of several hundred convention delegates and guests. "We are going to restore honor and dignity to the governor's office just as President George W. Bush has restored it to the Oval Office. And we are going to take back our government from a failed career politician and put the destiny of California into the hands of our people once again."

Noting that California had recently fallen behind France and lost its claim to be the world's fifth-largest economy--at least by one statistical measure--Simon taunted, "I know of a way to get France back to No. 6: Let's have Gray Davis go run France!"

More seriously, Simon acknowledged, albeit indirectly, the skepticism that has shadowed his campaign since he pulled an upset in the March primary by romping past former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan.

He spoke of those who doubted his candidacy before, and acknowledged many doubt it still. He spoke of the "summer doldrums"--drawing knowing snickers--when his campaign was plagued by a multimillion-dollar fraud verdict, since overturned, and he faced controversies over his tax returns and varied positions on gay rights. And he conceded that, among many pundits at least, the California Republican Party is seen as hopelessly crippled and his campaign as hopelessly behind.

On Nov. 5, he vowed, "We are going to send a message to the entire nation, that the party of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush is alive and well in California."

The involvement of the NRA, the country's premier gun owners group, could provide an important boost to the Simon campaign, which is struggling for cash and counting on an exceedingly low turnout on election day. That makes each party's get-out-the-vote efforts particularly important.

At the same time, however, gun control has wide support in California, particularly among the female voters and suburbanites needed to win statewide office.

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