LOS ANGELES — Michael Schroeder, former chairman of the California Republican party, said he was not surprised by the results of a Feb. 10 straw poll on candidates for governor taken at the Republican convention in San Jose.

The poll showed political neophyte Bill Simon as the favored son among GOP delegates.

Schroeder said he is heartened by Simon's candidacy: “I'm very excited as a conservative and as a Catholic.”

Simon is the son of William E. Simon, who served as “Energy Czar” under President Richard Nixon and as Secretary of Treasury under both Nixon and President Gerald Ford.

In spite of a general consensus among political pundits and reporters that Simon's bid for governor is a long shot, many Republicans think he is the man to beat California governor Gray Davis. State voters will decide in a primary March 5.

California Assemblyman Tony Strickland, Republican, echoed Schroeder's sentiments: “I was not surprised at all,” he told the Register. “Bill Simon has worked very hard at working the grassroots. He is running a fantastic campaign.”

Strickland said he was “1,000%” behind Simon. “Simon is surging in the polls, he's running that good of a campaign,” Strickland noted.

The ever-polite Republican newcomer to California politics is defying conventional wisdom among political insiders that former Los Angeles City mayor Richard Riordan would be a shoo-in for the Republican nomination. In addition to the GOP straw poll — which does not provide a scientific measure of voter support — a recent survey from Field Poll claimed Simon was “within striking distance of Riordan.” A Los Angeles Times poll said Simon was “closing in” on Riordan.

Another GOP candidate, Secretary of State Bill Jones, makes the run for nomination an increasingly close three-way race.

Throughout his campaign, Simon has stressed his Catholic faith as the cornerstone of his life. In a telephone interview with the Register, Simon said, “I've been a lifelong Catholic; I was one of seven children. Our Catholic faith was very important. I was blessed to be raised in a faith-driven environment.”

As a child, Simon attended St. Theresa School in Summit, N.J., where he also served as an altar boy. “I remember going to Mass on Sunday with my family, no meat on Friday, confession once a month.” At age 50, Simon can still easily recite the Latin Mass responses. “I was considered a good bell ringer,” he said with a chuckle.

Simon said that as a child he learned the kind of values he still cherishes — “respect your elders; be a good sport.” He hopes to bring this sense of values to the highest office in California, but he is aware that he is facing a difficult challenge. “If God wants this to happen, it's going to happen,” he says simply.

As an assistant U.S. attorney under former New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani, Simon managed to attend daily Mass at St. Andrew's Church in New York. “I would go to the 12:10 Mass; it was a nice, peaceful part of my day.” Simon often served as a lector at the Mass.

Simon also served on the board of PAX-TV until his California campaign began. He said he got involved in the network because raising four children made him realize “it was important to have family friendly entertainment.”

The PAX network reaches 85% of the U.S. market. Nancy Udell, its vice president of media relations told the Register that families want “programs that are free of sex or violence.” She said the network offers an array of programs that parents and children can watch together. “Our programming is entertaining,” she offered. “It's fun stuff.”

A member of the Sovereign Order of the Knights of Malta, Simon has also participated in several trips to Lourdes. The Knights sponsor the pilgrimages in order to bring people who are suffering terminal illnesses to the famous Marian site.

“Usually we take 40 or 50 people to Lourdes,” Simon told the Register. “The mission of the Knights of Malta is to serve the sick and poor.”

Simon has also volunteered regularly with Covenant House, a Catholic outreach for runaway youth. In addition to serving on its board of directors, he has mentored kids in the program suffering through difficult times.

In the political arena, Simon has received the endorsement of groups whose philosophy mirrors the Church's teachings. Recently, the California Pro-Life Council announced their support for his candidacy. Jan Carrol, legislative analyst for the group, said she is excited about Simon's quest for governor. “He certainly has committed himself to the pro-life position,” she said in a phone interview. “During the debates, he said that the Republican Party must stand behind our principles”

Although running for any political office is difficult, running for governor of the state of California can be overwhelming at times. At the end of the day, Simon, after traversing the state, looks inward. “I'm hoping to say my rosary by tonight” he said, as he dashed off to a campaign stop at Catholic Charities in San Francisco.

California Republican Assembly chairman Richard Mountjoy sees Simon as the perfect person to take the helm of the state. “At this time we are in desperate need for moral, God-fearing men of high integrity in public office,” he said.

Maria Elena Kennedy writes from Covina, California.