Sacramento (CNSNews.com) - Ending a GOP primary marked by surprises and upsets, California Republicans voted Tuesday to send political novice and conservative Bill Simon into the ring with Democrat Gov. Gray Davis in the hopes of recapturing the governor's office.
Simon's 49 percent victory crushed the other Republican candidates, former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and Secretary of State Bill Jones.
"Even we are stunned by the margin of victory in the race," said Simon campaign spokesman Bob Taylor, adding that Simon is prepared to take-on the "failed leadership" of incumbent Gov. Davis.
With 85 percent of precincts reporting, Simon captured 850,817 votes. Riordan gathered 525,638 votes, or 30 percent; and Secretary of State Bill Jones, California's lone statewide office holder trailed with 308,971 votes, or 18 percent.
Conservatives say Simon, whose father was treasury secretary under Presidents Nixon and Ford, achieved the upset after many Republicans became discouraged by Riordan's liberal stance on GOP hard-line issues, including the death penalty, abortion, and the right to bear arms.
Simon's anti-abortion, anti-tax positions gained him favor with conservative organizations, including the California Republican Assembly and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.
Though Riordan was quietly backed by the White House and was thought early on in the race to be the GOP's only chance of beating Davis, he was milled by conservatives, including former California Gov. George Deukmejian, who told attendees at the state's Republican convention last month that he could not support a Riordan nomination for governor.
Riordan contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democrats -- including Davis - something that infuriated many Republicans. Riordan defended his donations as the price of doing business as mayor of the nation's second-largest city.
But Riordan's outward support of Democrats, coupled with an aggressive, $10 million TV ad campaign which called into question his Republican credentials, accounts for Simon's leap to victory, say party observers.
Jeff Evans, editor of California Republican magazine, called Simon's ability to turn a 30-point defict in the polls into a victory as evidence of Simon's ability to unseat Davis "Gov. Davis is a tough campaigner, but the message of hope and opportunity that Bill Simon is sharing will resonate well with California voters," Evans said Tuesday night.
However, Davis, who handily won the Democratic nomination with more than 81 percent of his party's vote, said in his victory speech that Simon's "ideas are out of step with most Californians."
GOP Assemblyman Dennis Mountjoy scoffed, saying the Democrat governor simply feared a matchup with Simon in November's general election.
"Bill Simon is the best candidate to unseat Gov. Gray Davis," Mountjoy said. "And, he's the last candidate the governor wants to face in the general election," pointing to Simon's clean" political record and steadfast conservative ideals.
Assemblyman Bob Pacheco, who supported Riordan in the primary, said he will now stand by his party's nominee, vowing to "beat the drum" for Simon.
Pacheco, also a fiscal conservative, conceded that Simon's conservative views may dissuade some moderate Republican women from supporting the GOP ticket in November. But, Evans said, "If the issues are articulated properly to the electorate, Simon will have a tremendous chance of wining."
In a statement congratulating Simon on his victory, Marc Racicot, the head of the Republican National Committee,compared Simon to Ronald Reagan, saying both conservative candidates were underestimated by the pundits. (Read the RNC statement.)
Simon and his two opponents are expected to take part in the GOP's traditional "unity breakfast" on Wednesday, an event intended to throw support behind the party's primary victor.
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