- The Washington Times - Monday, March 4, 2002

Republicans in California are upbeat as they watch the political equivalent of the perfect storm brewing this fall for Gov. Gray Davis, the incumbent Democrat.
Republicans, who lost the governorship to Mr. Davis four years ago and the state to Al Gore by 15 percentage points in 2000, need a big win. Many are beginning to think Bill Simon will be able to deliver for them in November if he wins tomorrow's Republican primary.
As recently as January, the party's establishment in the state and the White House thought differently. Mr. Simon, a wealthy businessman but political novice unknown to voters, was thought to be all wrong for the state's liberal electorate because he was "all right" on Republican core issues.
He opposes abortion, gun control and special rights for homosexuals.
The state Republican establishment and the Bush White House originally lined up behind former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan.
Like Mr. Davis, Mr. Riordan favors abortion rights, homosexual rights and has flip-flopped on gun control. Even Republican centrists have quipped that Mr. Riordan has more big-name Democrats he counts as friends than does National Democratic Chairman Terry McAuliffe and has given more in campaign contributions to left-wing Democrats.
Also, his supporters now privately condemn Mr. Riordan for assuming right off the bat that Mr. Simon was no threat in the primary and that Mr. Riordan could immediately begin running to the center as if he had already won the Republican primary.
In doing so, Mr. Riordan angered some likely Republican primary voters who otherwise might have gone with him on the theory that if he was a RINO Republican in name only at least he was their RINO, and better a RINO in the governor's mansion than a Democrat.
Mr. Simon now runs ahead of Mr. Riordan in most polls and it appears too late for a Riordan comeback.
Analysts in both parties in the state say that doesn't mean Mr. Simon, if he emerges as the Republican nominee tomorrow, faces the same fate as former Republican Attorney General Lungren, who was defeated by Mr. Davis in 1998.
Mr. Davis used the abortion issue in particular to attack Mr. Lungren. This time, however, abortion may not be the weapon it once was, given Californians' deepening concerns about the state's economy.
"In 1998, Davis spent three-fourths of his ad money attacking Dan Lungren on abortion," California Republican strategist Dan Schnur said. "Davis doesn't want to run against a candidate like Riordan with whom he doesn't have differences on issues like abortion and gay rights."
In fact, Mr. Davis has run ads against Mr. Riordan saying he isn't pro-life enough, hoping to a wedge between Mr. Riordan and conservative Republican primary voters. Helping Mr. Simon upset Mr. Riordan would allow Mr. Davis to run against a pro-life Republican in the general election.
But as Mr. Schnur sees it, "It's going to be much harder for Davis to use abortion as the wedge issue in this campaign as it was four years ago."
The state has a $17 bilion budget deficit, recession, high energy prices and failing schools, Mr. Schnur said. "A governor who talks about abortion when hospitals are closing and lights going out in homes and in businesses runs the risk of looking very much out of touch."
Mr. Davis can run ads from now until November hammering Mr. Simon on abortion, guns and homosexual rights, but what California voters will be paying attention to is headlines about Mr. Davis having to cut popular spending programs and raise taxes to deal with the budget deficit, said Mr. Schnur.
"But a Republican must get some Democratic votes to win in California," Democratic strategist Joe Cerrell said. "Whether Simon can get some Democrats and hold on to liberal Riordan Republicans, I don't know. But if he can pull off an upset against Riordan on March 5, I can't ignore him."
State Sen. Jim Brulte, a conservative Republican, argues that any of the three Republican primary candidates including Secretary of State Bill Jones, running a distant third in polls could beat Mr. Davis in November.
"Re-elections are about incumbents, and Davis can't do anything to improve his reputation in the state," Mr. Brulte said. "The voters got to know him over the last three years, and they don't trust him and don't like him."
Reluctant Riordan supporters among conservative Republican officeholders in the state once argued that, as much as they would like to line up behind the conservative Mr. Simon, Californians wouldn't elect a man who never ran for, let alone held, a political office before in his life.
Now, as Mr. Simon begins to look like the party's nominee, these same conservatives are telling each other privately to remember Ronald Reagan a conservative who also had never held an elected political office, before he beat incumbent Democratic Gov. Pat Brown in 1966.

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