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Simon Exits Race, Citing a Crowded GOP Field

Times Staff Writers

Bill Simon Jr. dropped out of the race for governor Saturday, saying that there were too many Republicans on the ballot and that he didn’t want to jeopardize the party’s opportunity to replace Gov. Gray Davis if Davis is recalled.

Simon’s decision instantly changed the dynamics of a fast-paced campaign, although it was not immediately clear which of his rivals would benefit most.

The announcement was welcomed by the two leading Republicans in the race, state Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks), whose conservative base could be expanded by an influx of Simon supporters, and by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who said he hoped Simon’s “personal sacrifice will serve to unify Republicans and other Californians” -- presumably behind the actor’s campaign.

Both McClintock and former baseball commissioner Peter V. Ueberroth, another Republican, insisted that they had no intention of leaving the race.

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Leading Republicans have been growing concerned in recent days about the prospect that the party could splinter among several candidates, ceding the race to Democrats even if Davis is recalled. Only one prominent Democrat, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, is running on the second part of the recall ballot, which asks voters to choose a replacement for Davis in the event that he is recalled.

Although there had been calls by some Republicans for Simon to bow out, his advisors insisted that party leaders had not directly pressured him.

“Absolutely no phone calls were made to him,” said K.B. Forbes, a Simon campaign spokesman. “Absolutely no outside pressure. None.”

Simon delivered his announcement in a brief broadcast from a Sacramento studio early Saturday.

“This historic recall election has been about bringing profound and substantial change to our great state, and I strongly believe that the desire of Californians must come before the aspirations of any single candidate,” he said.

“There are too many Republicans in this race, and the people of our state simply cannot risk a continuation of the Gray Davis legacy. For these reasons, I think it’s wise to step aside.”

Because of the short time frame for election preparations, Simon’s name will remain on the ballot.

Simon, 52, an investment banker who lost the race for governor to Davis last year, led a whirlwind campaign over the last two weeks, dashing through more than a dozen cities from San Diego to San Francisco. He often leaped out of bed before dawn, packing his schedule with back-to-back radio and TV interviews before racing off to restaurants and other small businesses to promise fewer “job-killer” regulations.

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But his campaign was steadily leaking air, battered by poor poll showings and a pervasive sense that he had already blown his best shot at the governor’s office. With reporters asking him at nearly every stop whether he intended to leave the race, Simon’s enthusiasm was clearly beginning to wear thin.

He hastily canceled appearances Wednesday in Sacramento and San Diego when it became clear that Schwarzenegger would dominate news coverage for the day with a meeting of economic advisors in Los Angeles. Simon’s breakneck pace abruptly slowed over the next two days, with one or two campaign events per day instead of five or 10.

Schwarzenegger, meanwhile, began to sketch out a fiscal blueprint for reviving California that resembled Simon’s plan. The actor said he did not intend to raise taxes and would cap spending and conduct a thorough audit of state government -- all cornerstones of Simon’s platform.

On Thursday, Simon acknowledged that Schwarzenegger had stolen some of his thunder, but he called for debates so that voters could make an informed choice.

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“Let’s let the process work itself out, as opposed to coercing individuals to get out of the race,” he said at an appearance at a Los Angeles hotel.

But pressure to get out of the race was building as Republican leaders sought to unite behind the candidate with the best chance of defeating Bustamante.

Chris Niemeyer, executive director of the Lincoln Club of San Diego County, said that his group sent a letter last week to the four major Republican candidates -- Simon, Schwarzenegger, McClintock and Ueberroth -- urging them “not to attack one another and to rally behind the front-runner.”

On Friday, the Lincoln Club of Orange County announced that it was endorsing Schwarzenegger and urged the other candidates to step aside.

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That afternoon, Simon met in Sacramento with a half-dozen senior campaign aides, who thought they were going to be discussing ways to tackle the state budget. Sitting in a 15th-floor office overlooking the Sacramento River, Simon told them he had decided to quit.

Forbes, the Simon spokesman, said the group had talked for at least two hours, but not about whether Simon should go through with it. “It was a how-to-do-it discussion,” Forbes said.

After the meeting, according to Forbes, Simon called his wife, Cindy, then took about a dozen or so of his aides to dinner at a restaurant downstairs. There were no tears, Forbes said, just “a lot of toasts to a good run.” At 8 a.m. Saturday, Simon informed the rest of his staff.

“He felt that, for the good of the party, there has to be only one candidate,” Forbes said. “Internal polls showed the only way to bring Schwarzenegger down was a scorched-earth, slash-and-burn approach. That’s not Bill Simon’s personality and he would not in any way, shape or form do a campaign in that direction.”

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Duf Sundheim, the state Republican Party chairman, said that Simon, a millionaire, “wanted to do what was in the best interest of Californians. I’ve seldom met anyone in politics less driven by the need to hold a particular office, and more driven by the desire to make a positive difference.”

Simon ran what was widely perceived as a lackluster campaign for governor last November, but still wound up with a respectable 42% of the vote to Davis’ 47%. But in the crowded recall field, he was having trouble cracking into double digits in polls. The most recent Los Angeles Times poll, conducted through Thursday night, showed him at a meager 6%.

Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College and a former national Republican Party strategist, said he believed Simon’s exit would help Schwarzenegger more than McClintock.

“In a tight race, anything helps” that pushes Schwarzenegger forward, he said.

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Allan Hoffenblum, a longtime Republican strategist, said McClintock would come under “enormous pressure” to stand aside in favor of the actor.

“He’s a maverick and he’s an independent cuss,” Hoffenblum said of McClintock. “But he’s also up for reelection next year.”

Hoffenblum noted that McClintock could face a stiff challenge from Democratic Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson of Santa Barbara. “He’s going to need to raise enormous amounts of money in that battle,” the analyst said, suggesting that Republican donors could try to squeeze McClintock to get out of the gubernatorial race.

“The pressure is, ‘C’mon, let’s coalesce. Let’s win one,’ ” Hoffenblum said.

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Simon’s departure could encourage Schwarzenegger to tilt his campaign to the right, a move that appeared under way in the past week as aides had talked up Schwarzenegger as a conservative -- a departure from the early days of the campaign when they were vague about Schwarzenegger’s ideology and positions.

U.S. Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas), a key Schwarzenegger advisor, referred to the candidate as a conservative a half-dozen times in a 10-minute interview about Simon’s departure Saturday.

“I want to underscore the fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger is a conservative and to encourage everyone to understand that,” Dreier said.

Simon had criticized Schwarzenegger during the campaign, saying the actor is too liberal. In a radio ad that began running last week, Simon seized on a controversial remark by Schwarzenegger advisor Warren E. Buffett, who said it was time to consider overturning California’s Proposition 13, which limits property taxes.

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“Arnold Schwarzenegger’s team wants to triple our property taxes,” Simon said in the ad. “Which just goes to show you: Don’t send a liberal to do a tax-fighter’s job.”

Schwarzenegger disavowed Buffett’s comment, saying he supports Proposition 13.

In a statement Saturday, Schwarzenegger praised Simon as “a friend and man I respect.”

McClintock similarly praised Simon and said he was in the race to stay.

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Appearing Saturday at a picnic lunch hosted by the Placer County Republican Assembly, McClintock said that Simon’s decision had “strengthened my resolve to see this through to the finish.”

McClintock, who was greeted with a standing ovation by about 120 Republicans, said he had raised more than $600,000 in campaign contributions. “This is one horse that’s going to stay to the finish line,” he said, adding that he had received no calls urging him to leave the race.

Ueberroth could not be reached for comment Saturday, but his campaign manager, Dan Schnur, said he also had no intention of dropping out.

“We just finished a million-dollar fund-raising week,” Schnur said. “Why would we drop out?”

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Davis, who was in Newport Beach to address a Latino rights group, said he wasn’t concerned that Republicans might coalesce behind Schwarzenegger. Of Simon’s withdrawal, the governor said: “It’s of little significance to me. I’m not on that part of the ballot.”

Bustamante also said the pullout was of little significance, although for different reasons. He said he had never taken Simon’s candidacy seriously, and viewed Schwarzenegger, McClintock and Ueberroth as his real rivals.

The lieutenant governor has urged voters to reject the recall, but to vote for him as a backup in case Davis loses.

“This has always been a four-person race,” Bustamante said at a campaign appearance in the San Fernando Valley. “Mr Simon, if you look into his comments very carefully, has never really made a major commitment to his campaign. He never really wrote a big check, so I have always believed this was always going to be a four-person race. And frankly I believe any one of the four can win.”

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Times staff writers Mitchell Landsberg, Joe Mathews, Scott Martelle, Nancy Vogel, Patrick McGreevy and Miguel Bustillo contributed to this report.


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