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Simon Finding Himself Muscled Out of Spotlight

August 22, 2003|Sue Fox | Times Staff Writer

FRESNO — Over the last two weeks, Bill Simon Jr. has crisscrossed California from Eureka to Palm Springs. He has awakened often at 3 a.m. for radio interviews followed by campaign appearances at flower shops, restaurants and other small businesses.

When he shows up, almost invariably journalists repeat a single question. Thursday, a Fresno television reporter put it this way: "Will you forgo this election for the sake of the Republican Party if you continue to lag in the polls?"

"If Moses had taken a poll, he'd still be in Egypt," the candidate responded, citing Harry S. Truman, the patron of politicians who are trailing in their race and hoping for an upset.

Despite his efforts, Simon, who lost the race for governor to Gray Davis last year, is increasingly overshadowed by Republican rival Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose celebrity commands an army of reporters whenever he appears in public.

Simon says he wants to talk about the issues. But during his campaign stops, those he encounters -- reporters in particular, but often voters as well -- want to talk about Schwarzenegger.

On Wednesday, Simon abruptly canceled all campaign appearances, realizing that the media's spotlight would be focused on Schwarzenegger's economic summit in Los Angeles and not on him.

And so, as Schwarzenegger and his economic advisors held court before an audience of hundreds of reporters, Simon's spokesman, K.B. Forbes, sat in his office at campaign headquarters on the 25th floor of a Sacramento office building, flicking through the television channels.

"I'm just curious if the other stations are covering this," Forbes told a visitor as he hit the first station carrying footage of the Schwarzenegger event.

"Yeah, they are," he murmured as Schwarzenegger's square-jawed face popped up on channel after channel. "They sure are."

By Thursday, Simon was back on the offensive. Felt-tipped marker in hand, he signed a pledge written by the National Tax-Limitation Committee, promising that as governor he would not raise taxes or fees. He called on other candidates to do the same, saying that merely professing reluctance to hike taxes was not good enough.

Simon came to Fresno -- his second campaign stop here in two weeks -- to sign the pledge, an event billed as the kickoff to the no-new-taxes crusade he insists will carry him into the governor's office. Only a handful of reporters showed up.

Simon has made an austere plan to pull California out of its fiscal crisis the centerpiece of his bid to replace Davis.

But the more Schwarzenegger outlines his positions, the more difficult Simon's job becomes.

Like Simon, the action-movie star has promised a thorough audit of state government and reform of the costly workers' compensation system.

Schwarzenegger also has called for a constitutional spending cap and said he was unwilling to raise taxes, two more planks from Simon's form.

"Certainly, Mr. Schwarzenegger is borrowing a few of my ideas," Simon said Thursday during an appearance at the Piccadilly Inn in Fresno.

"And that's OK, because from my perspective, what's important to the people of California is that we run a responsible government. And I think, as a matter of public record, you can see how long I've been talking about these ideas."

Later, at an appearance in Los Angeles, Simon called for more scrutiny of the opposing candidates' positions on issues.

"Let's have some debates." Simon said. "Let's let the process work itself out, as opposed to coercing individuals to get out of the race."

The no-new-taxes pledge is Simon's current theme for differentiating himself from the Republican front-runner.

Schwarzenegger said Wednesday that he opposed tax increases but would not rule them out because the state could face an emergency such as terrorism or a natural disaster.

Simon, however, said he would not raise taxes under any circumstances.

"I rule out tax increases," Simon said. "That's a significant difference."

Another difference, he said, was that Schwarzenegger had not specified which programs he would cut to save money.

"I have specific ideas," Simon said.

"I have specific plans. I'm not having a commission or a committee advise me on what needs to be done. Honestly, I've gone through that. That was a year ago. I'm ready to go."

But Simon was not quite ready to release his own detailed economic plan, saying he would present it next week.

He did announce that if elected governor, he would set an example of "thriftiness" by accepting $1 per year as his salary.

For Simon, the effort to carve out a separate political territory from Schwarzenegger has meant relying more exclusively on conservative voters, political analysts said.

"Schwarzenegger is preempting everything. He's been saying he'll oppose new taxes, so then Simon says, 'Well, I'll sign a pledge!' He'll try to go any way he can to the right of Arnold to try to hold onto the hard-core [Republican] base," said Allan Hoffenblum, a veteran Republican consultant who is not involved in the recall campaign.

Hoffenblum said Simon is "running a true-believer campaign ... trying to win the hearts and minds of the hard-core Republican voters."

But that strategy could be risky as Republicans look to bet on the candidate best equipped to beat the only prominent Democrat in the race, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante.

Bob Robinson, a 65-year-old Fresno taxi driver who voted for Simon last year, said he planned to vote for whichever Republican is leading in the polls on election day.

"I kind of liked Simon in the last election," Robinson said. "But if he's not ahead in the polls, he can forget me. I'm not going to vote for a loser this time. I'm tired of it."


Times staff writer Joel Rubin contributed to this report.

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