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Jewish World Review Oct. 17, 2002 / 11 Mar-Cheshvan, 5763

George Will

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Consumer Reports

In politics, a picture can be worth a thousand explanations | BAKERSFIELD, Calif. Last Saturday morning, after another pratfall in a star-crossed, accident-prone and banana-peel-strewn campaign, a nevertheless ebullient Bill Simon, Republican candidate for governor in a state that has not voted for a Republican presidential or senatorial candidate since 1988 or for a Republican gubernatorial candidate since 1994, said: "We're close." Noting the incredulity of his interlocutor, he added: "I swear."

Amazingly, this was not just the adrenaline-driven, reality-erasing overdrive that keeps even hopeless candidates frenetic as they near the November finish line. In early July a Field poll had Simon trailing Gov. Gray Davis by seven points. Since then, Simon says, he has been battered by more than four months of negative ads -- $22 million worth -- and is seven points behind in the latest Field poll.

Last week he brought down on himself an acid rain -- actually, an acid monsoon -- of derision for wrongly claiming to have a photograph of Davis illegally accepting a campaign contribution in his government office (the photograph was taken at a Davis supporter's home). But Simon did not drop in polls. Indeed, he got a small -- probably evanescent -- lift, to within three points of Davis.

Why? The photograph of Davis receiving the check was published and broadcast everywhere. And a picture can be worth a thousand explanatory -- and often unread -- print stories.

This photograph came in the context of Davis's deserved reputation as a monomaniacal fundraiser. As he has raised $64 million for this race, there has been a steady stream of news stories about the eyebrow-raising correlations between large contributions to Davis and appointees (appointees have given him $12 million) and policy decisions by Davis that have pleased the contributors -- teachers, prison guards, etc.

If, say, 10 days before Nov. 5 headlines proclaim the race tied, Davis probably will become California's first governor in 60 years to be denied a second term. This is a tribute to Davis's remarkable ability to arouse in the electorate a longing to vote for almost anyone else.

Simon's task, after trouncing former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan in the Republican primary (an upset assisted by Davis, who tried to pick Simon as his opponent by running $9 million of ads attacking Riordan), was simply to seem acceptable. Since then, we have seen: a jury's reckless verdict of fraud (subsequently swatted down by a judge) against a Simon business; stories about Simon's association with a disputed tax shelter; Simon's tax returns not quite released; Simon blaming campaign confusion for seeming to embrace a gay rights agenda, then retreating. And there have been other lowlights.

There are 1.5 million more California Democrats than Republicans. George W. Bush spent significant time and money here but lost as badly as Bob Dole did in 1996, carrying only 19 of 52 congressional districts. Simon is pro-life in a state where more than 70 percent of likely voters are pro-choice. Simon's campaign should not have a pulse. But it could succeed, so widely is Davis regarded as a mercenary incompetent -- the soaring budget deficit, the electricity, water and infrastructure crises.

Davis is expected to spend at least $3 million in each of the remaining weeks, but Simon expects to be competitive in getting voters' attention. Spending $1.5 million per week gets a candidate's message seen by 90 percent of California voters, and Simon expects to spend more than that.

In 1966 another rookie running for governor, Ronald Reagan, revived the Republicans' successful 1946 slogan "Had enough?" Simon's billboards say: "Had enough? Fire Davis." And he has at his back the winds of Hurricane Rudy. A friend since Simon's days as a young prosecutor in New York, Giuliani campaigned for Simon when his support was just 5 percent early in the primary campaign, and he recently returned for five events.

Simon is attracting negligible numbers of Democratic voters, but he is supported by a higher percentage of Republicans than Davis is of Democrats. Davis is trying to rectify this with a new ad stroking his party's three erogenous zones -- guns, abortion and the environment. But third parties are bleeding away many liberals. The Green Party's candidate, Peter Miguel Camejo, may attract Hispanics when they first encounter his name -- in the voting booth. If the minor parties' cumulative vote reaches 15 percent, Simon can win even without much Democratic support.

Simon's campaign has resembled the 1962 Mets, who, while losing 120 games, moved their manager, Casey Stengel, to look down the dugout and ask, "Can't anybody here play this game?" Nevertheless, Simon resembles the Anaheim Angels: He can't be where he is -- but he is.

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