- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 26, 2002

SAN DIEGO Republican Bill Simon is against abortion, but his campaign strategists think pro-choice voters in California care more about the state's economic and educational woes enough to help their man defeat Gov. Gray Davis in November.
The White House political team is already heavily involved in the California governor's race, expected to be one of the most closely watched this fall.
With the state budget in the red by a record $17 billion, the economy sagging, energy prices sky high and test scores in public schools seemingly below sea level, the latest statewide poll shows the Democrat incumbent trailing the Republican businessman.
A majority of voters in California are pro-choice, however, and at a weekend political conference, Mr. Davis' chief strategist, Garry South, made clear that Democrats plan to demonize Mr. Simon as an anti-abortion zealot.
"Bill Simon is an unelectable extremist," Mr. South told a conference of more than 100 political consultants gathered to review Mr. Simon's upset win in the March 5 Republican primary.
"Californians have not elected a top-of-the-ticket candidate of either party for president, senator or governor who was not pro-choice, since George Herbert Walker Bush in 1988," Mr. South said. He also noted that Mr. Davis enjoys the historic advantage of incumbency: "We haven't had a governor of either party defeated for reelection since 1942."
During a panel discussion, Mr. South lectured his Republican counterpart that Mr. Simon will only hurt himself by attempting to play down his pro-life views.
"I'll give you a piece of advice, Sal: You're making a huge mistake in going out there and saying abortion is not an issue people care about," Mr. South told Sal Russo, chief strategist for the Simon campaign.
"It is a legitimate issue it is the defining issue in this state for Republicans and if you don't think so, you're engaging in self-delusion," Mr. South added.
Both sides say Mr. Simon is caught in a squeeze on the abortion issue. Although a good deal of his conservative voter base is pro-life, California is a pro-choice state with many suburban Republican "soccer moms" supporting abortion rights.
Yet the Simon campaign which got a boost from pro-life voters in upsetting liberal Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan in the Republican primary is saying that abortion should not be a major issue in the governor's race.
"Bill Simon is pro-life, but there is very little a California governor can do about abortion laws," said Mr. Russo, the Republican strategist. "Funding of medical abortions is guaranteed under the California Constitution."
Mr. Russo argued that "pro-choice women in our party think the economy is the most important issue, because they believe their right to an abortion is secure under our constitution."
Acknowledging that "pro-life women feel like abortion is a major issue," Mr. Russo said: "We're not going to be saying abortion doesn't matter. We're just saying it's nothing a governor can do anything about under our California Constitution."
The weekend conference highlighted the different temperaments of the mild-mannered Mr. Russo and his pugnacious Democratic rival. When someone mentioned a Republican-commissioned poll showing Mr. Simon ahead of the Democratic governor, Mr. South snapped: "It is as fraudulent as the fake IDs they hand out on corners of downtown L.A. … . We may be close, but we've never trailed Simon."
Some doubted whether Mr. Russo, with his reputation for taking the high road in campaigns he runs, was up to taking on the Davis campaign's top man.
"You have Garry South, feisty as hell, ready to take on the general election and giving advice to his opponent's consultant, telling him what he better do and better not do, and other people seeing the consultant as not up to the task," Washington-based Republican consultant Tom Edmonds said.
"This is going to be a hellacious fight, and if you're not a fighter, how are you going to win?" Mr. Edmonds said, referring to Mr. Russo.
Mr. Russo dismissed such doubts.
"Perhaps I favor more positive campaigns than more negative campaigns, but we have run negative campaigns when appropriate," he said. "It's clearly Garry's style that he will run a campaign that is more brass-knuckles than most. And we're prepared to do that, too."
Mr. Russo said that Mr. Simon can win in November by emphasizing bread-and-butter issues and taking advantage of Mr. Davis' unpopularity.
"The governor's record is fair game," Mr. Russo said in an interview afterward. "We're going to point out the energy crisis, the worst budget deficit in California history caused by his big-spending ways and the schools in Silicon Valley ranked last in the nation in science, near last in reading and math. So we're going to tell that story."

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