Grand Illusion

Bill Simon looks the camera square in the eye and walks right toward you. He‘s wearing a beautiful shirt the color of the Ionian Sea. He’s trying to smile. He says: ”Do you know me?“

Then he explains who he is: an honest, humble Republican candidate for governor, defamed and marginalized by the huge-spending Gray Davis machine. He‘s run his own business, he says, created many jobs. You should vote for him. Even if, until just now, you had no idea who he was.

The debut of this tentative, televised message to the masses kicked off last weekend’s fall state GOP convention of a California Republican Party whose independence has been recently curtailed by the national GOP. The little spot could not have been more of a contrast to the sizzling speech Simon made there to 600 party faithful. On Saturday night, in the Orange County heart of the GOP habitat, a confident Simon accused Davis of everything from ethical weirdness to instigating the state‘s tumbling economy and failing school systems. He got standing applause.

But that diffident new commercial underlined how hard it is for Simon to raise enthusiasm elsewhere. The weekend’s Garden Grove gathering was supposed to rally the GOP team for the final quarter of this year‘s state electoral Super Bowl, to make the fans shout from the stands, the cheerleaders kick their heels and get the mascot out there doing handsprings until the entire home team was fired up to win. As Ryan M. Erwin, CEO of Burbank’s Ronald Reagan Center, said, ”It‘s a traditional thing to be here for our candidate -- and we’re here to help Bill Simon. There‘s hope in the continuing big undecided vote.“

But how can the GOP nail that vote? The official convention roster showed 627 convention attendees: 317 members, 177 associates, 70 guests and nine youths. So much, you might say, for reaching Gen sub-X. Whatever their plans, though, the GOP’s operatives kept them under their hats.

Opening day, after being consigned to a handsome ghetto of a conference room with a white-clothed horseshoe table and some first-rate hors d‘oeuvres, we media were told that no events would be open to us until the new TV spot’s 2:30 p.m. unveiling. Thus the pep rallies, as it were, remained off camera and their degree of actual pep unknown. Reporters were reduced to interviewing Republican stragglers and one another as they browsed the lobby‘s generous display of GOP wares -- ”W“ caps, knitted flag sweaters, rhinestoned Old Glory pins, and broad, flag-colored ties that bordered on the psychedelic -- most of which items were unreassuringly marked down for quick sale.

Meanwhile, outside the hotel, a handful of activists -- including Democratic spokesperson-errant Mike Monasmith -- did a few ”We want choice“ chants. ”We chose to bring this issue here because it wasn’t being talked about,“ said O.C. activist and cleric Steve Matthews. Their issue was that Simon, who‘d once taken a libertarian pro-choice stance, was now toeing the orthodox GOP anti-abortion line. This difference typified a fracture in the party ranks, for even Libertarian GOP state leader Shawn Steel favors abortion rights while most of the old guard’s ”Child, Not Choice“ types don‘t. But even this was not the major fault line grinding away under the gathering. That one involved the quest for the party’s soul.

”This is the big moment,“ said one gray-pinstriped GOP old-guardnik. ”Once a fire-in-the-belly conservative like Bill Simon wins the governorship, it‘ll be clear to everyone who really owns the Republican Party.“

Well, yes. And if Simon loses, it’ll be clear that ownership hardly matters. To most liberal-progressives, the nuances of the left and right GOP wings are as hard to understand as the weather on the surface of the sun, but the distinction looms at first hand. Basically, there are those who would still manacle the party to the politics of the Gipper. And there are those who recall that the last two GOP governors of this state -- George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson -- made at least an initial appeal to the more moderate voters. It is a fine old conflict.

Shawn Steel, for instance, is reportedly not on speaking terms with Gerry Parsky, W‘s own California guy, who recently re-engineered Steel out of much of his state GOP power. Parsky also manifested the White House’s early and hefty support of the far more liberal Dick Riordan as a gubernatorial candidate. Steel was not much in evidence at the convention. Neither, for that matter, was Ed Rollins, Simon strategist Sal Russo‘s co-strategist partner, whose presence was promised in the program. Russo said Rollins had badly hurt his jaw in an SUV accident the night before the kickoff. Symbolism is powerful.

Meanwhile, there remained that perpetual money question. As in, who is going to pay for the nearly tapped-out Simon campaign’s latter-day media outreach? Russo allowed that it could cost over $10 million to get Bill to tell who he really is on everyone‘s TV. Russo wouldn’t say whence all this money was going to flow into a campaign recently all but bankrupt. (One source might be the National Rifle Association.) ”I don‘t want to tell Garry [South],“ Russo kept saying. But the incumbent’s campaign manager is by no means the only one curious about how Bill Simon, now -- according to the latest poll -- trailing the free-spending Davis by 14 points, can afford to turn himself into the comeback kid in the month between now and the election.

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