cnn: President swings through California
STOCKTON, California (AP) -- It was a most awkward campaign tour: President Bush first ignored the would-be Republican governor he came to help, and then embraced Bill Simon -- corporate fraud verdict and all -- as a "proven businessman."
Bush called Simon "the breath of fresh air" that California needs after the Democratic administration of Gov. Gray Davis.
The president's fund-raising tour of California on Friday, one the White House once considered canceling, played out against a background of Bush's get-tough message on corporate crime.
Barely one month ago, Bush and his political team were blind-sided by the $78 million judgment that a civil jury returned against the investment firm that Simon controls with his brother.
The White House hemmed and hawed about skipping this tour but went ahead with the weekend schedule -- one lunch, one reception and one breakfast with Simon -- rather than upset the prominent California
Republican donors Bush will need for his own re-election bid in 2004.
The ambivalence showed on Friday.
Arriving in Stockton, Bush gave Simon the most perfunctory of handshakes in a receiving line and then, leaving him at the airport, never uttered the name Simon to the cheering, stomping crowd at a nearby public rally.
Bush did promote congressional candidates Richard Pombo and Doug Ose from the Stockton stage and, to a riser packed with news cameras, delivered his standard stump-speech lines against corporate criminals who cook the books.
It was a different scene about an hour later at the private luncheon benefiting Simon's campaign against Davis, the Democrat incumbent.
"I'm so proud to be here to embrace his candidacy," Bush enthused, calling Simon the right man to keep an eye on the state budget.
"It's your money. And you better have somebody who understands that," Bush told donors.
"Bill Simon is a proven businessman who can get that done."
The president said nothing about corporate responsibility, which has been a reliable component of his speeches for almost two months.
Davis, the Democratic governor who has been seen as a potential presidential contender in 2004 though he said this week he has no plans to run, did his best to make both Bush and Simon uncomfortable. Davis staged a signing ceremony in Orange County, site of the president's evening appearance with Simon, to enact three bills stiffening state accounting laws and increasing prison terms for corporate fraud.
Simon was not named in the lawsuit and says he thinks the verdict, which is being appealed, will be overturned. Bush says he accepts Simon's word.
Nonetheless, White House organizers designed Friday's schedule so that the president appeared at Simon's side only in such private fund-raisers, with footage belatedly made available to TV networks
as they raced to make evening news deadlines.
As the day began, Karl Rove, Bush's chief political strategist and a hands-on operative who leaves nothing to chance, told reporters he did not know if Simon would attend Bush's two public appearances -- the Stockton rally and a speech to Hispanic leaders in Santa Ana.
Rove also hedged when asked if Bush would have any objection to appearing in any Simon campaign ad.
"We'd have to see what they would propose, if it would be appropriate," the strategist said.
In the end, Simon was nowhere in sight at either event and Rove suggested the president's time in California had as much, if not more to do with Bush's own prospects in 2004 than Simon's in November because of the grass-roots organizing that presidential attention can mobilize.
In the last presidential election, Bush lost California to Democrat Al Gore by 1.3 million votes.
Rove, in his rare appearance in the press cabin of Air Force One, also offered an assessment of the GOP's November chances of retaining control of the House and taking back the Senate:
"I feel good about the House and I think the Senate ... it's going to be one of those great high school basketball games where the outcome is in doubt until the very last second of the game."
Simon, a social conservative, was never Bush's first choice to take on Davis, the incumbent. The White House recruited the more moderate Richard Riordan for the GOP primary, but he lost and Bush, with little other choice, dutifully made a $5 million fund-raising swing for Simon in April.
By the time Bush heads back to Texas Saturday afternoon, he will have netted Simon's campaign another $2.6 million, not quite the $3 million his campaign first predicted.
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