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Davis Continues to Lead in California Race - 2002-10-22


Democrats hold most major state offices in California, and they hope to hold on to the governorship in the election November 5. The Democratic incumbent, Gray Davis, has a solid lead in the polls against his Republican challenger, businessman Bill Simon. But neither candidate is popular with voters.

Most Californians are not especially excited about the governor's race. In a recent poll, 65 percent of registered voters wish they had other candidates to choose from.

Hanging over the head of incumbent governor Gray Davis is a $26 billion, incurred as he dealt with an energy crisis. Mr. Davis's critics say he responded too late to signals that California's energy market was collapsing two years ago. The governor brokered high-priced, long-term contracts to ensure future power supplies, a move that he says was necessary to solve a problem already in place when he took office.

Bill Simon says, however, the crisis was mishandled. "Mr. Davis should apologize for failing to act and then panicking during the energy crisis, which he has now recently acknowledged."

Despite Bill Simon's charge, Mr. Davis has not acknowledged mishandling anything. He admits California paid too much for long-term power contracts and says he is trying to re-negotiate them. He also wants refunds from energy companies, which he says manipulated the market to their advantage during the crisis.

Governor Davis, a 59 year old career politician, is known as an effective campaigner and fundraiser. His campaign has raised more than $55 million, a near record. It has spent more than $20 million on television ads, some of which question his opponent's competence and integrity. In the only debate of the campaign, Mr. Simon rejected suggestions of incompetence and shady business dealings. "In all your television ads that you ran this summer, when you chose to attack me personally as opposed to talking about your own record, the reason is that you don't have a record to run on."

Mr. Simon later lodged a charge of his own against the governor, accusing him of once breaking the law by accepting a campaign donation inside a state government office. He produced a photograph as evidence, showing a smiling Mr. Davis accepting a campaign check. Days later, Mr. Simon admitted he was mistaken. The 1998 photograph had been taken at a private residence, and the contribution was perfectly legal.

Bill Simon is a 51 year old former prosecutor and the son of a U.S. Treasury Secretary. But he is a political neophyte. Some national Republicans have criticized his campaign, one calling it the worst run in the country. The Los Angeles Times newspaper, terming the race for governor "dreary," labeled the Simon campaign "amateurish" and reluctantly endorsed Mr. Davis. But the newspaper called the governor's style "robotic," and said he is too reliant on special interest money.

Political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe expects low voter turnout. She notes that there are no statewide ballot measures that have excited the voters, as there have been in past years, on issues like tax reduction or cutting public benefits for illegal immigrants. "I think that the impact of negative advertising is such that voters are turned off a bit with the campaign. And I also think it has a lot to do with the reality that there isn't a Proposition 13, a property tax reform initiative, a Proposition 187, an immigration initiative," says Mrs. Bebitch Jeffe. "There isn't a hot button issue out there to bring voters statewide out."

The only excitement in the campaign so far was outside the Los Angeles Times building, where the two candidates debated.

Supporters for Green Party candidate Peter Camejo demanded that he be admitted to the debate. The third party candidate had been invited by Mr. Simon, but was not allowed to enter the building, even as an observer.

Both the major and minor candidates are trying to build support in a state known for diversity. Over the weekend, Mr. Davis rallied with Hispanic farmworkers in California's Central Valley, while Mr. Simon met with Asian Americans in southern California.

Governor Davis has a lead of eight to 10 percent in the polls, and appears to be heading toward easy reelection, but Mr. Simon says his campaign is catching up. Analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe says she knows from experience not to make predictions in politics.

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