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A viewpoint by Thomas D. Elias: Weak GOP hopefuls making party look desperate

March 13, 2001

How desperate are California Republicans as they look toward next year's run for governor?

The best measure may be that less than one year before the primary next March, there were no major declared GOP candidates, although Secretary of State Bill Jones did allow that he might declare sometime during the month of March.

But at last report, Jones had just over $100,000 in the bank, compared to the $26 million-plus in the hands of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis.

"(Jones) has to get into the business of raising money, and soon," pronounces Shawn Steel, the new chairman of the state GOP.


Yes, Republicans have some hope. Mostly they hope the energy situation is fouled up so badly this summer that blackouts continually roll across California this summer, with consumers blaming Davis. But most polls indicate voters realize there is plenty of blame to go around, what with the fact that every Republican in the Legislature voted for the 1996 deregulation plan, which was OK'd by a 100 percent Republican state Public Utilities Commission and signed with fanfare by a Republican governor.

And so, the GOP turns to fantasy. That's where actor Arnold Schwarzenegger comes in.

"He's the X-factor," says Steel. "He's a world-class celebrity who's a Kennedy. He's clearly testing the water. Having a Republican Kennedy would be awesome, especially since he can spend more of his own money than Davis can ever hope to raise."

Gushed John McGraw, the man Steel replaced in the party's top job, "He's got the money, he's a Republican in Hollywood, he's got name ID you can't buy."

That's all true.

But no one knows for sure that Schwarzenegger will still be a Kennedy come election time, for Davis campaign manager Garry South gleefully circulates a Premiere magazine article alleging the actor has groped young women reporters interviewing him. He also is happy to provide a National Enquirer clipping in which an "insider" confides that "Arnold constantly cheats on Maria." That would be his wife, TV newswoman Maria Shriver, the woman whose presence makes Schwarzenegger a Kennedy, sort-of.

Schwarzenegger lawyers have called the Premiere piece false.

And what if Schwarzenegger goes away quietly, deciding not to run?

Then, besides Jones, the GOP could turn to financier William Simon Jr., a man who has voted only twice during the past six years, demonstrating his concern for public affairs may not be as deep as some Republicans believe.

Simon is the son of a former Richard Nixon-era treasury secretary. Steel says he's "potentially exciting." Asked why, he allows that "Simon is unknown. That makes him potentially quite exciting. And his long years of work with Catholic Charities give him a good appeal to Latinos. The fact that he's interested one year out says a lot. But he would have to have a dashing campaign."

Simon, a Los Angeles businessman, could be the Republican equivalent of Al Checchi, the billionaire Davis defeated in the 1998 Democratic primary. Or the analog of Michael Huffington or William Matson Roth or Norton Simon or a host of self-funded candidates of the past, all of whom lost. It's been decades since a self-funded, self-styled political savior last won a statewide office in this skeptical state.

But that doesn't spare him from attacks from South. He informs reporters Simon was "part of the savings and loan scandal that cost U.S. taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars," but provides no details. And he implies that Simon has been an industrial polluter. "The Billy Simon story just gets — well, muckier and muckier," South allows.

While all the GOP candidates might have strengths and two have money of their own to burn, none has yet caught fire. None has demonstrated any wide appeal. All but Jones are easy attack targets, and Davis — with a long record of hardball campaign advertising — is sure to make some Jones statements on the ongoing power crisis seem anti-consumer.

All of which shows why California Republicans look desperate these days. Maybe John McCain could bail out the party if he quickly renounced his Arizona residence and moved to California. For sure, the current crop of potential candidates doesn't look promising.

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