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As His Campaign Flounders, Simon Seems Lost at Sea

Bill Simon Jr. must feel like skipper Billy Tyne in “The Perfect Storm,” being attered by an unlikely convergence of climatic events.

Bill, like Billy, steered right into the center of this storm himself, unawares.

The Republican candidate’s dilemma:

* Simon is running for governor as a rich businessman-investor at a time when there seems to be a new revelation daily about some corrupt CEO. For many voters, polls indicate, rich businessman is synonymous with corporate greed.

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* The electorate isn’t exactly singing the praises of corporate America anyway because a majority of voters, I suspect, have been watching their 401k retirement savings seriously erode.

* Simon has refused to release his income tax returns, despite the fact that practically every big-time politician does. He might have gotten away with this, except the Internal Revenue Service now claims he has used a tax shelter that may be illegal and certainly is “abusive.” A voter’s logical question: What else is he hiding?

* Since Simon has no experience in elective office, he must tout the management and leadership skills he has shown in business. But he refuses to back up his claims of success with facts about return rates on investments. “They’re private,” he told Times reporter Michael Finnegan.

* Gov. Gray Davis had $31.6 million stashed in his political kitty as of June 30, an enormous sum. His campaign proudly announced this on Tuesday as Simon was speaking to the Sacramento Press Club. Why? Simon was bound to get a lot of attention and Davis wanted to horn in--to send a message to potential Simon donors that he’d be an underfinanced, losing investment. Simon reportedly had only $5 million in cash.

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Unlike Billy Tyne, Bill Simon is not a skilled skipper. He has never been in rough water before. Indeed, before this voyage, Simon had never been in any political water.

Listening to him for an hour at the Press Club, I got the impression Simon was in way over his head and probably should have stayed on the dock.

In the long run, a better course might have been to follow his initial instinct and run for state treasurer or some other lower office. But consultant Sal Russo convinced him that his best shot was governor because Davis was vulnerable and without a strong GOP gubernatorial candidate, Simon couldn’t win a smaller office anyway.

Simon did win the gubernatorial nomination, but by default. Former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan imploded while being ripped apart by Davis attack ads. Secretary of State Bill Jones couldn’t raise money.

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Simon outflanked his two GOP rivals on the right and now is awkwardly trying to move toward the center, especially on abortion and the environment.

But the main reason Simon seems the wrong candidate for the wrong office is not just because he’s a “proud conservative” who’s “pro-life.” Or that he’s a businessman when many voters are anti-business. Or totally lacking in any state government experience. Or hasn’t even always bothered to vote.

Nor is his predicament mainly caused by a bloated staff constantly being reshuffled, usually at the behest of presidential and national GOP strategists.

No, Simon’s core problem is that he doesn’t convey commitment or conviction. Doesn’t exude emotion or create excitement. He smiles, but doesn’t emit warmth.

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Ronald Reagan did all that. Former Gov. George Deukmejian was boring, but he had a long, solid record and left no doubt he’d lock up the bad guys. Pete Wilson wasn’t exciting, but he projected strong leadership.

Simon beats up on Davis--"the first coin-operated governor"--and he should. Davis is a sitting duck with a tarnished image. He leads Simon by only seven points--41% to 34%--in the latest Field poll.

“Right now people would prefer a change, but they’re not going to buy a pig in a poke,” says Allan Hoffenblum, a longtime Republican pro. “They may dislike Gray, but they don’t fear him.”

“There’s still plenty of time to elect the guy,” GOP strategist Ken Khachigian says of Simon. “But he ought to spend a couple of quality weeks just thinking about where he’s going. Getting his bearings.”

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Not being Gray Davis won’t be enough. Voters will want to know who Bill Simon is and whether he’s an acceptable alternative. What will he do for them? Tell them one or two specific things on education or transportation. Spare the long, dull issues papers.

Be upfront. Unfortunately for Simon, the tax issue has dragged on too long. Release the returns. They’re unnecessary baggage.

Come up with at least one good, specific idea to help close the state budget deficit. Cut more spending? OK, what? Exhibit some courage.

To avoid Billy Tyne’s fate, Bill Simon will need to be less cautious and more aggressive.

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He can’t just keep drifting until November.


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