- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 18, 2002

What can we say about Bill Simon, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in California? He makes every mistake, and then some. In November, we can write a postmortem on why Mr. Simon lost to Gov. Gray Davis. Or we can go public now, hoping someone will fix the mess.

After all, Mr. Davis has been a miserable governor. Even California, liberal as it is, deserves better. Mr. Simon, you recall, was the surprise winner in California's Republican primary. He defeated Richard Riordan, the White House favorite. Unfortunately, all the president's men failed in their due diligence. The former Los Angeles mayor self-destructed.

Mr. Simon's first mistake last year was hiring Matt Fong's campaign team. You may remember Mr. Fong. As California state treasurer, he was favored to defeat Barbara Boxer. She remains California's unimpressive junior senator. That's because something strange happened on the way to Mr. Fong's easy win. His campaign advisers forgot to define him. So the Boxer camp did, with help from Mr. Fong's own campaign team. Running Mr. Fong for senator in the nation's largest state, they defined him as a mama's boy. Their signature television spot was an endorsement from Mr. Fong's mother. Now, they're back. Their primary spots for Mr. Simon were not much better: A talking head who removed his glasses for drama (how original). Mr. Simon's signature television spot called for cutting the state's capital-gains tax (as if anyone cared).

How, then, did Mr. Simon win?

Mr. Simon long ago was endorsed by Rudy Giuliani. (Mr. Giuliani held a grudge because liberal Mr. Riordan had refused to back him over Hillary Clinton.) Suddenly, after September 11, Mr. Giuliani was an asset to Mr. Simon, whose campaign then used Mr. Giuliani to introduce Mr. Simon to the Republican electorate. More importantly, Mr. Riordan faithfully and systematically alienated that Republican electorate. And, finally, negative TV ads on Mr. Riordan saturated the Republican electorate. They were funded not by Mr. Simon, who never planned to win (Mr. Simon merely was laying the groundwork for a future statewide race), but by Mr. Davis, who spent $7 million to savage Mr. Riordan on Republican issues. Mr. Davis did what Mr. Simon refused to do confront Mr. Riordan. But Mr. Davis' ads cleverly hid the required legal disclaimer, so there was no anti-Davis backlash among Republicans.

At that point, California Secretary of State Bill Jones would have won the primary. But Mr. Jones, ever a casualty of his stupid switch from George W. Bush to John McCain after New Hampshire, could not raise campaign money. He spent all of $200,000 on TV spots. So Mr. Simon then spent his millions and won by default. (In fact, Mr. Simon's campaign foolishly had Mr. Simon loan the campaign money. That means if he were governor, Mr. Simon would be paid back by "special interests." This helps neutralize his attack on Mr. Davis' aggressive fund raising. Why didn't Mr. Simon's campaign instruct him to give his campaign the money?)

Actually, Mr. Jones was just what the Republican Party needed to defeat Mr. Davis a warm body. Instead, Republicans got Mr. Simon, and his baggage and campaign consultants who never helped empty the baggage.

Republicans in California are in disarray. Consider the president's go-to guy, Gerald Parsky. He feuds with Party Chairman Shawn Steel over party reorganization. Who cares? Don't they want to win an election? What an opportunity for Republicans. Mr. Davis has high negatives and awful ballot numbers. He's just plain unpopular. But when Mr. Riordan lost the March 5 primary, Mr. Simon thought he Mr. Simon won.

Since then, it has been downhill for Mr. Simon. While Mr. Davis struggled with a $20 billion-plus deficit, Mr. Simon was hardly visible. Worse, there was no concerted attack on Mr. Davis. Apparently, it never occurred to Mr. Simon's high command to orchestrate surrogate assaults to keep Mr. Davis off-balance. Instead, Mr. Simon's top-heavy campaign added layers of even more "senior strategists." It seemed like an old-age home, except some of Mr. Simon's senior advisers are junior, especially in campaign experience.

Mr. Simon's campaign endlessly reorganizes. Four campaign managers in four months. No wonder. How do you manage a campaign without a strategy or plan?

Why doesn't he see the obvious? How can he attack Mr. Davis for mismanagement? Indeed, Mr. Simon's on-again, off-again TV campaign is quixotic. There is no theme, no message. Mr. Simon's TV budget? It's even less credible than Mr. Simon's campaign polls. After all, remember Dan Lungren? He spent $30 million to lose to Mr. Davis in 1998. His campaign polls always showed the race as "close" and "within a few points."

Meanwhile, Mr. Simon remains on defense. He never decisively answered predictable attacks on his involvement in a failed S&L. It's as if his campaign never heard of Charles Keating.

When Mr. Simon was asked to release his tax returns, as former Republican governors George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson did, Mr. Simon's inept handlers said they would check with his accountants in New Jersey. Now, the IRS is suing Mr. Simon's accountants for alleged tax scams. That gives new legs to past attacks on Mr. Simon, who remains bogged down defending himself. The campaign touts Mr. Simon's business success but refuses to document it. This is amateur hour.

Mr. Simon may be an honest and decent man. But without media-savvy campaign advisers to direct him, what happens? His conflicted press operation yields this result on the television news: Mr. Simon looks like he's caught with his hands in the proverbial cookie jar.

Last year, Mr. Simon could have squared away his finances. Instead, his campaign advisers avoided asking him tough questions. They are nice people who make the candidate feel good. Our guess is that Mr. Simon did not come clean with them. They and he agreed don't ask, don't tell. Rich guys should know better, even before Enron, Adelphia and WorldCom.

And now, we see the consequences of Team Simon's unpreparedness. Asked this week whether he had paid California income taxes, Mr. Simon could not answer. Then, he called the reporter back to say he had. By all accounts, Mr. Simon's campaign has had major problems with message and its press operation. Yet, in the latest curious development, Mr. Simon has named the head of his troubled communications shop as the new day-to-day campaign manager.

The White House raised $5 million for Mr. Simon. Now, it promises another $15 million if Mr. Simon's campaign shapes up. What does that mean? That could be money down the drain unless Mr. Simon really cleans house. Who is in charge?

And what happens when Mr. Simon loses? Mr. Simon's original core group of lucky incompetents will blame the White House. And Republican "moderates" will blame abortion, a non-issue in this campaign. Everyone loses here, except Mr. Simon's well-paid campaign bumblers and Gray Davis. Mr. Simon was never ready for prime time, but he could have been prepped. Maybe he still can.

There's still time to win this one.


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