LOS ANGELES — When President Bush arrives in California on Friday, political observers will be watching closely to see how enthusiastically he promotes the candidacy of GOP gubernatorial hopeful Bill Simon.
Bush will be headlining three private fund-raisers for Simon, but the popular president is not expected to appear in public with the beleaguered nominee.
And don’t look for Bush, whose administration has been cracking down on corporate wrongdoing, to say anything supportive about the $78 million civil fraud verdict handed down against Simon’s investment firm last month.
“What I think you’ll hear from the president is a very nice partisan pitch,” said GOP consultant Allan Hoffenblum. “One thing he probably could do very easily, as almost anyone could, is talk about the evils of the incumbent.”
Simon faces Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in November.
The surprise fraud verdict astonished the White House and struck at a central theme of Simon’s first-time candidacy, his business prowess. Simon was already struggling from missteps and underfunding. Last week he fired almost half his staff.
Republican insiders said the administration never seriously considered backing out of the commitment to return to California. But they expect this visit to be the president’s last on behalf of Simon.
“I would be stunned if he came out again,” said one political consultant who’s worked for the Republican National Committee. “I think that this is totally it, and I think that if they could’ve gotten out of it they would’ve.”
They didn’t, the consultant said, in part to avoid the impression of contributing to Simon’s struggles.
Publicly, Republican officials downplay such speculation. They note that at the end of this visit Bush will have done five Simon fund-raisers, more than for most candidates.
“I think people are trying to read too much into the tea leaves. He supports Bill Simon for governor, and he’s coming to do three fund-raisers for him. That should say all it needs to say,” said Mindy Tucker, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee.
Simon said he’s confident of support from Bush, who backed a different candidate in the primary.
“Actions speak louder than words, in my estimate,” Simon said Wednesday on CNN’s “Inside Politics.” “President Bush is behind us 100 percent.”
Bush will headline a fund-raising lunch for Simon on Friday in Stockton, a reception for the state Republican Party and for Simon that night in Dana Point, and a breakfast for Simon the next morning in Los Angeles. The events are expected to raise $3 million for Simon and $1 million for the state GOP.
The Stockton event is being thrown by San Diego Chargers owner Alex Spanos, and Dole Food Corp. President David Murdock is playing host in Los Angeles. Speculation was stirred when the Los Angeles event was moved from Murdock’s Thousand Oaks ranch to a much smaller and more central venue, but campaign aides chalked that up to logistics. The Stockton event sold out and was moved from Spanos’ home to his jet hangar, they said.
The president will also do two nonpartisan policy events, allowing him to split the cost of the trip between taxpayers and the GOP. Friday morning he’ll address a crowd at Stockton Memorial Civic Auditorium, and that afternoon he’ll meet with Hispanic community leaders at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana.
The state Democratic Party dubbed the visit the “Bush/Simon California ’Tour de Fraud’ 2002” and promised protests outside each event.
It will be Bush’s fifth visit to California since becoming president. He lost California to Al Gore by 12 percentage points in 2000 and Republicans are determined to do better in 2004.
Bush was last in the state in late April, when he headlined two Simon fund-raisers and stopped in Los Angeles to mark the 10th anniversary of the 1992 riot. He also gave Simon a ride on Air Force One, an event that’s not scheduled to be repeated, though campaign aides said Bush and Simon meet privately at some point during the trip.
While Simon aides talked up Bush’s visit the Davis campaign played it down.
“In the end there are two names on the ballot and none of them are George Bush,” said Davis campaign press secretary Roger Salazar.