Turn on a television set in California at any hour of the day and you are likely to see one of Gray Davis’s anti-Simon ads. Davis is blanketing the airwaves, confident in the knowledge that he can max out on advertising and still have money to burn. The rhetorical primitiveness of the ads is as comic as their frequency. When in doubt, depict your opponent in grainy, slow-motion footage. Given the ads’ apocalyptic, heavy-breathing air, one might think the mild-mannered Bill Simon was busy launching plans to invade Poland.
Unfortunately, Davis’s just-keep-lying-until-something-sticks strategy is succeeding at some level. The Los Angeles Times recently asked Californians, “Which candidate has more honesty and integrity?” Amazingly, 44% of Californians said Davis, while only 27% said Simon.
Yet the race isn’t over. Even after months of Davis’s largely uncontested defamation campaign, Simon remains within ten points of him, according to the Times poll. Simon is at 35%, Davis at 45%.
For the Times, the story here is that Davis has “opened a substantial lead.” But Davis’s advisers and donors should be wondering why the lead isn’t larger. It should worry them that 13% of voters are undecided and 7% are supporting other candidates. Environmentalist Peter Miguel Camejo is getting 4%, according to the Times.
It should also worry them that a majority of Californians continue to have an unfavorable impression of Davis and see him as incompetent in major policy areas. The Times poll found that 52% of likely voters disapproved of Davis’s handling of the state budget and 60% disapproved of his handling of the energy crisis.
What all of this suggests is not so much that Simon could win but Davis could lose. Davis’s elemental unpopularity is a constant factor that should make for an unpredictable finish. The distaste for Simon doesn’t appear as visceral or immovable. He still has the potential to change the public’s impression of him. Many Californians, after all, don’t have much of an impression of him.
Four weeks before the Republican primary, recall, most people assumed Richard Riordan would clean Simon’s clock. The little-known Simon surprised the establishment then and he could surprise them again.
The conventional wisdom is that Davis, intervening in the primary, defeated Riordan. The truth is that Riordan defeated himself. He imploded, running an I-don’t-like-Republicans campaign, and Simon stepped forward as a prudent alternative. Simon must hope now for a similar scenario: an implosion from Davis, who is far less likable than Riordan, followed by a surge of awareness that Simon is an acceptable alternative.
The October 7 debate between Simon and Davis — the first, and maybe, last time Californians will get a chance to size the two up together — could change the character of the campaign. Davis will no doubt cast his neophyte opponent as a large gamble for the state. He will stress Simon’s lack of “experience” and disparage his business career. Simon must turn the tables quickly on him, and ask him why Californians should re-elect such an unpopular, ineffective governor. How valuable is “experience” if it results in a $24 billion deficit? How could he raise so much money for himself and lose so much money for the state?
Davis’s recent anti-business frenzy — he just signed a farm labor bill that will damage the agricultural industry — provides Simon with more ammunition. If Davis wants to talk about Simon’s business record, Simon should just note his company’s successful investment return and profits, and then ask Davis to explain how his antipathy for businessmen, except the ones who donate to his campaign, helps the state.
Davis likes to say that he is running the fifth-largest economy in the world. But it is now the sixth. And most businessmen, according to a recent poll, rate it the worst state in the country in which to do business. How does Davis explain this?
Isn’t it safer for Californians to entrust the sixth-largest economy in the world to a businessman rather than a career bureaucrat and politician who has disdain for business and whose economic expertise consists of turning a surplus into a deficit? Simon at least has experience in business writing checks. Davis’s experience is limited to receiving them.
Every question Davis asks of Simon can be asked of him, and with much more urgency. The basic question is: What exactly entitles Davis to a second term?
His appalling record over the last four years, not Simon’s, is the issue.
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