Democratic Governor Gray Davis is building a box around Republican challenger Bill Simon Jr. It‘s the box Davis and his consultants promised to place him in during a freewheeling election-night discussion last month at the Biltmore. Choice on abortion, which Simon won’t discuss, is the first wall. Energy, on which Simon continues to be silent on major developments, will probably be another.

The major-party candidates have been a study in contrasts. Simon essentially went to ground — no public events for nearly two weeks since a somewhat rocky press conference in Sacramento, when he dodged repeated questions on abortion and energy deregulation. In a move reminiscent of his defeated Republican rival, former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, Simon was said to be working on raising money and getting up to speed on the issues. He is back on the trail with three speeches this week, but his handlers say he won‘t be taking questions from the press.

Meanwhile, Davis is methodically doing public events to sharpen his abortion-policy differences with the anti-choice Simon and to shore up his Democratic voter base.

Last Monday, Davis appeared with Laker legend Magic Johnson to strengthen his support in Los Angeles and Oakland, where they were amusingly joined by Davis’ ex-boss, former Governor-turned-Oakland-Mayor Jerry Brown. ”I know you,“ Brown said to Davis, his former chief of staff. (The two, whose relationship has been somewhat distant over the years, have not allowed their political disagreements to become a soap opera.) ”I‘m going to have to get taller,“ Brown quipped, standing next to the foot-taller Magic.

Many insiders are wondering if we all might have to get taller, as Johnson used the occasion of his Los Angeles endorsement of Davis to announce that he is thinking of running for mayor against Jim Hahn. There has been much speculation on whether Davis approved of Magic floating his candidacy while standing next to him, especially given this comment: ”Let me learn something from the governor,“ Johnson said. ”If I decide to get into the race, what better mentor could I have than the governor?“ Davis, who supported former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa over Hahn last year, was not pleased that Hahn — who has yet to endorse him — skipped February’s Democratic State Convention in L.A.

After this perhaps unplanned excursion into L.A. mayoral politics in the course of strengthening his Dem-ocratic base — a venture that continued this week with celebrations of Cesar Chavez Day — Davis zeroed in on Simon‘s anti-abortion views.

First he joined with state and national pro-choice leaders in San Francisco to drive home the point that, when it comes to abortion rights, it does matter who the governor is, contrary to what Simon says. National Abortion Rights Action League chief Kate Michelman likened Simon’s line to that of Virginia Governor James Gilmore, who said abortion wasn‘t really an issue while running and then turned around and worked to undermine abortion rights once in office. Later in the day, Davis joined a top state health official in Sacramento to announce that ”morning after“ pills must be provided on request.

It’s all very premeditated and relentless. State Dem-ocratic Party political director Bob Mulholland said, ”By the time of the election, Simon is going to think that abortion is part of every issue and every question.“

Simon‘s main sign of life during his period of public quiescence was to send out a press release from campaign manager Sal Russo, which focuses on a somewhat cautionary UCLA report about the state’s economy. The intended message is that Davis wants to talk about abortion because he doesn‘t want to talk about the ”real“ issues. Russo closed by echoing James Carville’s line of ‘92: ”It’s the economy, stupid.“ Which, like the public quiescence itself, was reminiscent of Riordan‘s notably unsuccessful retorts to Davis when the governor shellacked him on abortion.

While Simon has had success in garnering endorsements, his fund-raising since his dramatic primary victory has been lagging.

Ordinarily, a dramatic come-from-behind victory over a heavily favored front-runner would open up the campaign cash spigots. Not so for Simon, at least not yet. Davis has raised nearly twice as much money since the primary.

The Simon campaign says it is getting organized for a major fund-raising push. Indeed, President Bush is coming to California this month to headline one and possibly two fund-raisers for the conservative hopeful. And he will journey to Washington on April 9 for a fund-raising reception organized by the Republican Governors Association.

But the ticket price for that event, $1,000 per person, seems relatively modest, reflective of the fact that Simon was a political unknown before deciding to seek the California governorship just a decade after registering to vote here.

At the moment, Davis has about $29 million more cash on hand than Simon, despite spending $10 million on the primary campaign, most of it to shatter the Riordan candidacy. So Simon definitely needs to get organized financially. (While Simon is wealthy, it’s not at all clear that he has the personal wealth to go toe to toe with Davis in campaign spending.

Simon also needs to get organized on the issues. While he styles himself as ”the candidate of ideas,“ and decries Davis for his effort to box him up on abortion, it‘s not yet clear that he is capable of moving much beyond prefab answers on major issues.

Observers agree that he was transparent in dodging questions about energy deregulation at his last public press conference on March 20, slip-sliding into programmed attacks on Davis without discussing his championing of a total free market in electric power.

Simon had better get up to speed on energy policy, because now the Legislature is getting serious about two major bills that would help green California: A bill by state Senator Byron Sher (D–Palo Alto) calls for 20 percent renewable power (wind, solar, geothermal, biomass) by 2010; and Assemblywoman Fran Pavley (D–Agoura Hills) has authored a bill to cut greenhouse-gas emissions.

With Davis onboard, support is growing for the 20-percent-renewable requirement. Even Southern California Edison seems supportive. Two of the biggest roadblocks are San Diego–based Sempra — and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Environmentalists note that the DWP might be the dirtiest public utility in the West in terms of energy source, with less than 3 percent of its power generated by renewables.

In contrast, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District already gets nearly 20 percent of its power from renewables. Edison already gets about 14 percent of its power from renewables, so it can afford to jump on the bandwagon. PG&E gets 12 percent of its power from renewables. But in L.A. under Jimmy Hahn, the old-time approach seems dominant. The DWP wants to buy more coal-fired power from Utah. And Sempra gets virtually none of its power from renewables.

L.A. Assemblyman Rod Wright blocked the renewable requirement last year and still is not favorable. His behavior, and that of other L.A. representatives on the Assembly energy committee he chairs, will be critical to the bill’s chances.

With their repeated defeats in the U.S. Senate, environmentalists have turned Pavley‘s global-warming bill into a top priority. Robert Redford has offered to campaign for it. Davis is up in the air on the bill and, from his comments to the Weekly, may be leaning against. But the bill is under the protection of state Senate President John Burton, the fiery San Francisco liberal, and went through the state Senate Environment Committee on Monday. That committee is chaired by Byron Sher, author of the renewable-power standard. Not surprisingly, the big car companies are mobilizing against the Pavley bill, with their efforts coordinated by former Assemblyman Phil Isenberg. It promises to be a very big show.

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