- The Washington Times - Friday, March 1, 2002

California Gov. Gray Davis may get what he wants: an upset win by conservative Bill Simon over liberal Richard Riordan in the Republican gubernatorial primary Tuesday.
But Mr. Davis, a Democrat, may regret it, just as California Gov. Pat Brown lived to regret similar tactics against Ronald Reagan 36 years ago.
Facing no challenger in the Democratic primary, Mr. Davis has spent $8 million on ads that slam Mr. Riordan, former Los Angeles mayor.
Mr. Davis' goal has been to help Mr. Simon, a political upstart and wealthy conservative businessman, achieve an upset victory over the well-known Mr. Riordan.
Mr. Davis' strategy hinges on the belief that the pro-choice Mr. Riordan, who has support among liberal Republicans, independents and Democrats fed up with the California governor, would make a more formidable Republican opponent than the pro-life, socially conservative Mr. Simon.
California Secretary of State Bill Jones, the third and financially poorest candidate in the Republican primary, has not been considered a threat by either his Republican rivals or Mr. Davis.
Mr. Riordan was far ahead of his Republican opponents until the Davis ad campaign helped Mr. Simon overtake the former Los Angeles mayor in the latest Field Poll released this week.
"The biggest factor in Simon's winning the primary, if he does, will be Gray Davis, because what he did to Riordan put Simon ahead of the pack," said veteran California Democrat campaign strategist Joe Cerrell.
Mr. Davis' strategy has many similarities to that of Democratic Gov. Pat Brown's efforts in 1966 to attack former San Francisco Mayor George Christopher, a centrist who was Ronald Reagan's principal opponent in the Republican gubernatorial primary. Yet Mr. Brown's strategy backfired.
Mr. Reagan won the primary, but he also went on to defeat Mr. Brown by a 58 percent to 42 percent margin and to serve two terms as governor of California.
Mr. Simon now looks as if he is on the way to winning the March 5 Republican primary. The Feb. 21-27 Field Poll of likely California Republican voters has him leading Mr. Riordan by 39 percent to 30 percent, with Mr. Jones at 10 percent. The poll also shows that Mr. Simon is ahead of Mr. Davis setting up the possibility that a conservative Republican may again become the governor of the nation's most populous state.
With the governorship, the lieutenant governorship and both U.S. Senate seats held by Democrats, many California Republicans are hoping that their party's standard-bearer can defeat Mr. Davis in November's election.
The Field Poll shows that both Mr. Simon and Mr. Riordan would defeat Mr. Davis, whose popularity has fallen in the wake of the state's energy crisis and budget problems.
The poll shows Mr. Simon edging out Mr. Davis by 44 percent to 42 percent, with Mr. Riordan beating Mr. Davis by a heftier 46 percent to 40 percent.
More ominous for Mr. Davis, the poll finds that 54 percent of all likely voters say they are not inclined to vote for him, and among those voters, 31 percent are Democrats.
But Mr. Davis has a $30 million war chest that Democrats say will almost double for the general election. "And if Al Gore was able to win this state by 15 percentage points, as bad as his campaign was, you've got to put your money on Davis," said a prominent California Democrat.
Before Mr. Simon's surprise showing in the polls this week, some Republican conservatives in the state supported Mr. Riordan because they shared the belief held by the White House that he was the party's best bet for recapturing the governorship of California.
But some of these Republicans have now criticized Mr. Riordan for moving too far to the left during the primary campaign especially in his strong support for abortion and homosexual rights. The result is that he has antagonized many grass-roots activists who form the bulk of the voters in a Republican primary campaign.
Also, many conservative Republicans who backed Mr. Riordan for pragmatic reasons now believe that Mr. Simon can defeat Mr. Davis in the fall. They argue that the political novice's vast personal wealth and surprise performance as a skilled campaigner will make him a formidable Republican challenger.
Even some Democrats concede that Mr. Simon's political skills and access to large sums of money will make him a strong contender to unseat Mr. Davis.
"If you ask me how will Simon, with no political experience just like Reagan, will do if he wins the primary, I'd have to say 'I don't underestimate him because of that great equalizer money,'" Mr. Cerrell said.


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