Dispatches > The Buzz

Flash Traffic

Political buzz from Washington

Issue: "Welfare to work," March 16, 2002

Following Bill Simon's landslide upset of former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan in the California Republican primary for governor, you need to know one thing: Democrat Gov. Gray Davis has $28 million in the bank. He will use it to attempt to demonize and destroy Simon quickly. A preview of the Democratic talking points on Simon comes from State Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres: "The Republican Party has nominated for governor-to use Dick Riordan's own words about Bill Simon-an unelectable extremist and sanctimonious hypocrite." The big question is: How far will President Bush and the Republican National Committee go to help Simon to oust Davis? Will they stand back and let the California GOP implode like the New Jersey GOP did after Bret Schundler won its gubernatorial nomination last summer? The White House "really thought Riordan was the only guy who could beat Davis in the fall," Simon campaign manager Rick Ahearn told WORLD. "They've been totally surprised by our surge. They shouldn't have been." Ahearn says it wasn't until the week before the primary that the White House finally began reaching out. Simon moved quickly to unify the California GOP behind the president's 80 percent approval rating in the Golden State. "The George W. Bush party is alive and well in California," Simon declared on election night. Bush reciprocated the next day, calling Simon to congratulate him and offering to come to California to help him raise money. "I know you can beat Gray Davis and I want to help in any way I can," said Bush. But one trip won't be enough. Simon is independently wealthy, but he needs millions more than he's likely to put into the campaign himself-and he needs it fast. Talk radio's Rush Limbaugh urges the White House to declare war on Davis and fund it heavily. If the GOP could win the governorship of liberal California, "it would be so awesome," says Limbaugh. "It would be like taking over Iraq."

Although businessman Simon had never run for political office, he and his top aides were confident of winning California's GOP gubernatorial nomination. But they never expected a landslide. "When I was hired, we were at 3 percent," says campaign manager Ahearn, who's worked for Ronald Reagan, Jack Kemp, and Steve Forbes. Riordan was 33 points ahead. By early February, Simon was up to 20 percent. By the end of February, he'd pulled even with Riordan, 31 percent each. The night before the primary, Simon, Ahearn, and campaign strategist Sal Russo couldn't believe their eyes as they pored over their final internal polling results. If voter turnout topped 40 percent, their models had Simon winning by a whopping 13 points (37-24). If turnout dipped as low as 39 percent, the Simon edge could be 17 points (41-24). In the end, voter turnout was just 36 percent and Simon crushed Riordan by 18 points (49-31). Simon even ran well in Riordan's backyard in Los Angeles County, garnering 143,224 votes to Riordan's 165,848.

What caused Simon's surge? The air war. Gov. Davis and his team followed the Clinton-Gore formula from eight years ago. Just as that Democratic campaign pummeled Bob Dole with negative ads in early 1996, Davis forces spent $10 million in ads to soften up Riordan. It worked. Edgy GOP voters began looking for an alternative to Riordan. The Guiliani factor. When Simon began airing ads with the immensely popular ex-New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani endorsing him, the polls began to move. Guiliani's moderate credentials also helped blunt Riordan's attacks that Simon was too "ultraconservative." Voters concluded, "If Guiliani likes Simon, how 'extreme' could he be?" Solid base-running. Riordan assumed GOP voters had nowhere else to go while Simon aggressively courted the base, declaring himself a pro-growth, pro-life, pro-Second Amendment conservative. But rather than dwell on ideological controversies, Simon focused on conservative solutions to California's problems. He proposed cutting the capital gains tax from 9.5 percent to 5 percent and offered plans to balance the budget and to fix the energy crisis. The only specific ideas Riordan discussed were those that infuriated conservatives, like making gay marriages legal.

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Joel C. Rosenberg
Joel C. Rosenberg

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