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Simon Retraces Steps on Campaign Trail

The second time around in effort to unseat Davis, the businessman seems comfortable on familiar ground.

August 18, 2003|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

There he was again, his mouth curved in that familiar wide grin as he hopped out of a dark SUV and waved to a small knot of supporters who welcomed him to a Palm Desert retirement community.

"It's great to be back out on the campaign trail," said Bill Simon Jr., the once and current gubernatorial candidate.

The Oct. 7 recall election may be a new world for most of the 135 candidates attempting to replace Gov. Gray Davis. But for Simon, it's deja vu.

Last year, the Republican businessman from Pacific Palisades waged his first political campaign, trying to defeat Davis and warning voters that the incumbent was mismanaging the state. After a series of blunders and missteps, the GOP nominee lost by five percentage points.

Simon 2.0 has started right back up where the first campaign left off, but, he hopes, with "a few less mistakes."

He is touting the same platform, vowing to balance the budget by cutting waste and to improve the state's infrastructure by having the private sector build roads and power plants. Although his top campaign managers have been reshuffled, Simon is flanked by the same group of young aides who were at his side last year. They're even wearing the same blue "Simon for Governor" lapel pins.

"I'm hoping blue and yellow are still the colors, because that would make it a lot easier," said Dan Dove, an electrical engineer in Colfax, Calif., who still has a pile of old Simon for Governor lawn signs out by his barn that he hopes to reuse.

The familiar themes and images have lent Simon's second gubernatorial campaign a "Groundhog Day" atmosphere as he crisscrosses the state, using the same talking points before similar crowds, but hoping for a different result.

Many political experts are skeptical. "I can't imagine there's any reason to believe it's going to be successful," said Tony Quinn, an independent campaign analyst based in Sacramento. Quinn views the recall effort as a result, not just of dissatisfaction with Davis, but of frustration with Simon's uneven campaign last fall as well.

"People hated the choice," Quinn said. "His mediocre campaign last year is why Davis won."

Simon views it differently. In his mind, the events of the last 10 months -- especially the $38 billion budget shortfall that surfaced after the election -- only reinforce the arguments he made last year.

"I'm not going to say 'I told you so' for your readers, because I hate people who say 'I told you so,' " he said during a recent interview. "But was I not right?"

That's the message the investment manager has taken out on the trail over the past seven days, from Bakersfield to San Francisco, Palm Desert to Redding, rising at 3 most mornings to get in a round of media interviews -- 30 on television and 24 on radio, campaign officials said.

But in a race dominated by a movie star and including half a dozen other prominent competitors, "no one is talking about Simon," said Republican strategist Allan Hoffenblum. "I guess he knows how Al Gore feels."

For now, Simon says he doesn't mind that he's not directly in the spotlight. On a Southwest flight Saturday evening from Sacramento to Burbank, he paged through a People magazine featuring actor Arnold Schwarzenegger on the cover and mused about how different the atmosphere is from that of his last campaign.

Then, Simon was on the defensive nearly every week, fielding questions about upheaval in his campaign, his role in a failed savings and loan and a $78-million fraud verdict -- eventually thrown out -- against his family investment firm.

Now he is able to focus much more on his campaign message, and he is pairing his platform of fiscal reform with a greater emphasis on his Republican credentials. Simon's campaign consistently refers to him as "the conservative alternative" to Schwarzenegger.

"This election is going to be about your base, as opposed to reaching out to people who wouldn't normally vote for you," Simon said. "I don't care how much attention Arnold gets, as long as I get enough," he added. "I've got specific ideas. We don't know where Arnold stands on a lot of things yet."

Simon, however, has a competitor on the right: state Sen. Tom McClintock, a stalwart conservative who ran for state controller last year and has struck a chord with many Republicans concerned about Simon's ability to beat Davis. At a Placer County GOP barbecue Saturday, McClintock got two standing ovations.

Simon said he thinks his rival will not be able to raise enough money to compete with him.

"If you're not on TV, you don't exist," he said with a smile.

It's one of many campaign truisms Simon has picked up from the last time around. He talks about the need "to stay on message" and demonstrates a dedication to that task, dutifully sticking to his script about pared-down government, no matter what the question.

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