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GOP Challengers Spar as Davis Campaigns to Remain in Office

July 27, 2003|Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Rifts among three of the leading Republican contenders for governor emerged Saturday as they began competing for support from party loyalists with a united assault on Democratic incumbent Gov. Gray Davis.

In Los Angeles, Davis campaigned against the recall at a labor union barbecue in Echo Park.

"They don't want to recall me," he told several hundred supporters, mostly Latinos. "They want to recall the progress we've made over the last four years."

He also voiced support for a bill that would provide driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, a subject of intense lobbying by Latino leaders who had been angered by his resistance to a version of the bill earlier in his tenure.

While Davis hammered GOP lawmakers for proposing budget cuts to health and education programs, his own fiscal record was the target of scathing attacks by Republicans Tom McClintock, Bill Simon Jr. and San Diego area Rep. Darrell Issa.

The three appealed to conservatives at a rally outside the state Capitol by blaming Davis for the state's fiscal crisis and by calling for the governor's removal in the Oct. 7 recall election. The rally drew 1,000 supporters of the recall to the Capitol steps, where they carried "Dump Davis" signs and shouted "No more Gray!"

Simon, who lost to Davis in the race for governor last November, said his Democratic rival had "lied about the budget" during the 2002 campaign. He cited the way Davis' projections of the size of the budget shortfall jumped dramatically after the election.

"I don't think there are many Californians who believe that Davis honestly thought in early November that the budget deficit would be that low -- only to find out 11 days later that the scales dropped from his eyes like Paul on the road to Damascus, and he had some type of an epiphany," said Simon, invoking Paul's conversion to Christianity in the Bible. "I don't find that credible."

Simon, a businessman who lives in Pacific Palisades, did not formally declare his candidacy but left little doubt about his intentions. In an aggressive speech that recapped his campaign themes from last year, he outlined budget plans for "when I am governor in 2006 -- or maybe in 2003."

While Issa, Simon and McClintock were united in their criticism of Davis, they began to diverge in trying to establish which of them would be his strongest rival. If all three put their names on the ballot, they will inevitably compete for the same slice of the electorate: the Republican Party's conservative base.

All three are fiscal conservatives who oppose legal abortion and gun control.

For now, it remains uncertain whether a less conservative Republican -- such as former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan or actor Arnold Schwarzenegger -- will enter the recall race and lay claim to a broader swath of the California electorate.

Many strategists in both parties believe that the recall ballot would threaten Davis more if it included a Republican moderate with the means to run a serious campaign than it would if all the candidates were conservatives.

Davis, who supports legal abortion and gun control, has used the positions of the Republican hopefuls on those issues -- Issa's stands in particular -- to bolster his case that the recall is a right-wing plot to seize control of the nation's most populous state.

As Issa made the rounds of conservative radio broadcast booths at the rally, the San Diego congressman criticized Davis for "still running on social issues at a time in which the state is in terrible financial shape."

"I think that is very much like Nero fiddling as Rome burned," he said.

Issa, who is the only one of the three conservatives to have formally declared his candidacy, was the boldest Saturday in drawing contrasts with GOP rivals. A one-time Army officer who made more than $100 million in a rags-to-riches ascent in the car-alarm business, Issa spent $1.7 million to bankroll the recall. Compared with Simon and McClintock, he said, he offers "the best balance" of military, private-sector and legislative experience.

While the candidate stopped short of attacking his GOP rivals, his campaign did not.

In a telephone interview, Issa campaign manager Scott Taylor said the congressman had "led the recall from the front while Bill Simon did absolutely nothing." And, unlike Issa, Simon, heir to a multimillion-dollar family fortune, "has no up-from-the-bootstraps background," Taylor said. He also recalled Simon's repeated bungles last year in the governor's race, his first bid for public office.

"He ran one of the least memorable campaigns in our history, certainly from a competency point of view," Taylor said.

Simon responded: "I spent two years trying to recall Gray Davis, so I've done plenty to support the recall."

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