Careful What You Wish For!

Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon addresses supporters at a campaign appearance Sunday, March 3, 2002, in Burbank, Calif. 020304,GD.
Bill Simon confounded the White House by winning the California GOP gubernatorial primary. Now it's Democratic Gov. Gray Davis' turn to sweat. Susan Semeleer of the CBS News Political Unit checks out the race in the Golden State.
A new poll shows GOP upstart Bill Simon cutting Democratic Gov. Gray Davis' lead in half.

The survey - conducted by the California Field Poll last week - shows Davis ahead 41-34 percent, down from 43-29 percent in April.

In the past few months Davis has faced budget fights with the legislature and charges of preferential treatment for software giant Oracle.

Though Davis still leads, his failure to hit 50 percent, and his high negative ratings (39 percent favorable, 51 percent per cent unfavorable) is a source of concern for the Davis camp.

In November, Davis will face the Republican challenger he wanted. Businessman Simon owes his nomination in no small part to Davis' intervention in the GOP primary. The embattled governor clearly thought he had a better chance against a conservative political novice like Simon rather than the popular former Mayor of Los Angeles.

But Simon's surprising primary victory over Richard Riordan – the anointed candidate of the Bush White House – indicates that the political neophyte may know how to win against seemingly insurmountable odds.

And if recent polls showing the race tightening are to be believed, Davis may well be reminding himself of the Chinese curse: May you get what you wish for.

Simon's campaign has cobbled together something of a political Noah's Ark – a minion of Republican operatives from every corner of the party, including people from the Riordan and Bill Jones campaigns (a sop to the vanquished primary competition), party stalwarts like Ed Rollins, Ken Khachigian and Lyn Nofziger, and strategists dispatched by the White House, which is eager to yank the Golden State back into the Republican column.

The choice of Reagan-era true believers like Nofziger and Rollins belies conventional political wisdom that Simon must run to the center if he is to have any chance of beating Gray Davis. And, at least for now, some polls also belie the conventional wisdom that the conservative neophyte doesn't have a chance against Davis.

It remains to be seen whether the band of brothers Simon has assembled is the reason the campaign has been doing so well of late. But many are crediting a series of humorous ads attacking Davis' aggressive fundraising tactics.

Republicans see the governor's enthusiastic cash-grabbing as one of his greatest vulnerabilities, so Simon strategist Sal Russo says the campaign has "chosen to poke a little fun" and, not inconsequently, get a lot of "free media" attention to the issue.

The two ads, entitled "Receptionist" and "Maids," attempt to capitalize on a charge that has dogged Davis from the early days of his tenure as governor – that he presides over a pay-to-play administration that spends an unseemly amount of time asking for money, to the detriment of the state, and often from people and industries with enough stake in Davis' decisions that critics say the line between solicitation and shakedown has often become blurred.

The "Maids" ad features two maids cleaning the fictional office of the governor. As they clear away the cobwebs, the younger maid asks the older, more experienced maid about a drawer filled with cash and a dust-covered volume on the California crisis. The worldly maid explains, "That's just the way things work around here. … because all he ever does is fundraise for his campaign." As they leave the office, the lights go off.

In the other ad, a Cerberus-like receptionist parked outside the governor's door screens visitors, turning away a teacher and a police officer because they "haven't given enough money." A businessman carrying a briefcase full of cash approaches, she waves him through. When a child approaches the desk with his piggybank and asks to see Davis, the receptionist shakes the bank next to her ear, and tells him, "Keep saving, kid."

These ads are hardly subtle stuff. They are hard-hitting attack ads cloaked in humor. But Republicans see this strategy as a good one, and are hoping to make stick the perception that Davis fundraised while California burned.

The poll is not all good news for Simon, however. His negative rating is now higher than his positive, 39% unfavorable to 30% favorable. And the Davis campaign has had some negative ads of its own. They attacked Simon for his involvement in an S&L collapse and they say there's more where that came from. They've starting running the ad in the Bay area this week.

The Simon campaign has signaled that every dollar Davis has solicited - since asking for an advance on his allowance when he was 9 - is going to come under heavy scrutiny.

But Davis' campaign has made it clear that they intend to use that money to pummel Simon, so it remains an unsettled question which campaign will have the last laugh.