- The Washington Times - Friday, August 30, 2002

Republican challenger Bill Simon, his campaign for governor of California strapped for advertising cash, got "free" publicity this week by switching his position on legal benefits for unmarried couples, including homosexuals.
Mr. Simon, who trails Democratic Gov. Gray Davis by 11 percentage points in a new poll, said that as governor he would proclaim a "Gay Pride Day" and uphold homosexual rights laws and regulations already on the books. His statements have attracted considerable attention in the California press.
But Mr. Simon's support for homosexual rights has been denounced by some social conservative leaders who previously supported the Republican businessman. Mr. Simon ran as a traditional-values conservative in defeating his liberal rival, Richard Riordan, in the Republican primary earlier this year.
Two groups that had supported Mr. Simon the Traditional Values Coalition, headed by the Rev. Lou Sheldon in Anaheim, and the Campaign for California Families yesterday criticized Mr. Simon for what they said was a betrayal of traditional values.
Since Richard M. Nixon's election as president in 1968, successive Republican candidates have pursued the strategy of running to the right to attain their party's nomination and then moving toward the center in a general election campaign. But Republican strategists say that it requires a delicate balancing act: Making sure that the candidate does not alienate his or her conservative base while appealing to moderate and liberal voters.
Sal Russo, Mr. Simon's chief strategist, says Mr. Simon is successfully implementing Mr. Nixon's strategy of running to the center in a general election campaign. Mr. Russo also says Mr. Simon has not flip-flopped on the homosexual issue.
"We haven't changed our position whatsoever," he said. "The whole concept of broadening our message doesn't mean changing it. Obviously, the general electorate has somewhat different concerns than the primary electorate."
"On core issues, we are very much in the Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush camp, solidly conservative but in a California way," Mr. Russo said.
Mr. Russo said 36 percent of the California electorate is Republican and even those voters are divided on many issues. His task is to unite those Republicans behind Mr. Simon "and get large numbers of Democrats as well."
"I think the Simon campaign made a mistake," said Wayne Johnson, a California-based Republican campaign consultant who has resisted criticizing the campaign in the past. "It's easy to panic when you see you're behind by double digits in the polls. But everything hinges on Bill Simon getting out his [conservative] base [of voters] in November."
He said the Simon campaign's dilemma is to boost its poll numbers without damaging voter turnout from the Republican Party's conservative base.
Mr. Johnson said Mr. Simon's decision to support legal benefits for homosexual couples recalls a similar mistaken strategy by Mr. Russo in the 1998 election, in which Republican challenger Matt Fong whose campaign was also masterminded by Mr. Russo failed to unseat Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer.
"Sal had Fong all over the place on issues, and our conservative base lost enthusiasm and didn't come out for Fong," Mr. Johnson said.
However, that doesn't mean the same fate awaits Mr. Simon, Mr. Johnson said, because the election will focus on Mr. Davis, of whom California voters including many within his own party have a far more negative view than they had of Mrs. Boxer.
Mr. Johnson and Mr. Russo said that 41 percent of voters would pull the lever for Mr. Davis if the election were held today. They cited an Aug. 14-21 poll of 1,549 registered voters in the state by the independent Public Policy Institute of California.
"When is the last time an incumbent governor had such a low re-elect number two months out from an election?" Mr. Johnson asked.
Still, Mr. Johnson said that Mr. Simon's support of homosexual rights threatens to alienate not only conservative Republican voters, but also social conservatives within the Democratic Party.
In the latest poll, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points, 30 percent of respondents said they would vote for Mr. Simon. More ominously for the Republican challenger, 51 percent said they approve of the job Mr. Davis is doing as governor, up from 39 percent in a similar poll in March.

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