- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 7, 2002

California Gov. Gray Davis got what he wanted Tuesday a victory by political novice Bill Simon over former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan in the Republican gubernatorial primary.
It may have been too much of a good thing for Mr. Davis, who had figured that Mr. Simon would be the easiest Republican candidate to beat in November because he was the most conservative.
But the size of Mr. Simon's 18 percentage-point upset win over Mr. Riordan instantly helped transform the conservative businessman into a Republican who now runs ahead of the Democratic governor in head-to-head poll matchups for the November general election. And the Simon campaign has already begun working with the White House for the November election.
Nonetheless, Democrats gloated. "The White House and President Bush went out on a limb in recruiting Riordan, and we hope they are just as successul with the candidates they recruited in Minnesota, North Carolina and North Dakota," said Tovah Ravitz-Meehan, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
At one time trailing the liberal Mr. Riordan by 40 percentage points in the polls, Mr. Simon whose father was Treasury secretary in the Nixon and Ford administrations ended up trouncing him by 18 points.
Mr. Simon won 49 percent of the vote to Mr. Riordan's 31 percent. California's top elected Republican official, Secretary of State Bill Jones, had trouble raising money and came in third, with 17 percent.
Mr. Davis, facing no serious oppositon, won 81 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary.
President Bush and his White House advisers last year recruited Mr. Riordan, 71, to seek the Republican nomination in the belief his liberal views best matched those of California voters.
Now California Republicans and the White House strategists are asking themselves if Mr. Simon can do to Mr. Davis what another novice politician, Ronald Reagan, did to incumbent Democratic Gov. Pat Brown in 1966 pull an upset in the general election.
Mr. Simon's strong finish in the primary campaign encouraged hopes of a Republican revival in the nation's most populous state, where Democrat Al Gore defeated Mr. Bush 53 percent to 42 percent in 2000.
"California is important to the president and to the party, and we intend to be helpful to Bill Simon and other Republicans running there this year," said Ken Mehlman, White House political director.
Chief Simon strategist Sal Russo said yesterday he expects the White House political team to get even more involved in the campaign.
The White House "recognizes that we have an opportunity to actually win and we're going to get their full support," Mr. Russo said. "We have already started the process of cooperating and deciding how the president might help."
Mr. Bush called yesterday "at the unity breakfast and was very gracious in offering his support to Bill and in encouraging everyone to get behind the campaign."
One boost for Mr. Simon in the primary campaign came from the man who will be his November opponent. Mr. Davis spent millions of dollars on ads aimed at undermining Mr. Riordan with conservative Republican primary voters. Democrats believe that, in the general election, they can define the conservative Mr. Simon as out of the mainstream for California voters.
Yesterday, Bush advisers and California Republican analysts said Mr. Simon can win in November if he sticks to the issues that won him the primary and that are Mr. Davis' most vulnerable points a record $17 billion state budget deficit, a serious recession, high energy prices, water issues and a collapsing public school system.
Republican strategists were virtually unanimous in saying that Mr. Simon has to make the election a referendum on Mr. Davis. They anticipate Mr. Davis' best shots will be delivered in ad campaigns that depict Mr. Simon as an anti-abortion zealot and opponent of "reasonable" gun control.


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