LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Republican Bill Simon dropped out of the California recall race on Saturday, boosting the position of GOP front-runner Arnold Schwarzenegger amid calls from party leaders to narrow the Republican field.
"This recall election has been about bringing profound and substantial change to our state, and I strongly believe that the desire of Californians must come before the aspirations of any single candidate. There are too many Republicans in this race and the people of our state simply cannot risk a continuation of the Gray Davis legacy. For these reasons I think it's wise to step aside," Simon said in a videotaped statement.
Simon's exit 45 days before the Oct. 7 election leaves three leading Republicans among the 135 candidates on the ballot to replace Democratic Gov. Gray Davis: Schwarzenegger, former baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth and state Sen. Tom McClintock, R-Thousand Oaks.
Simon did not endorse another candidate, but spokesman K.B. Forbes said he might do so later. Forbes denied the move by the conservative who lost to Davis in 2002 came in response to pressure from party members.
"There was absolutely no pressure, no phone calls -- this was a decision made by Bill Simon based on rational conclusions," Forbes said.
But with Democrats increasingly united behind Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and his "No on recall, yes on Bustamante" strategy, GOP leaders have grown vocal about the need for the party to coalesce behind fewer candidates. Some believe the party would be best off with Schwarzenegger as the only Republican candidate.
Although the actor is more moderate socially than many in the party's conservative base, he leads the other GOP contenders by wide margins in polls, making him the party's best chance to win the governorship, many party members believe. And Schwarzenegger would have a better chance of beating Bustamante, with whom he is neck-and-neck in polls, without opposition from members of his own party.
"I believe that the goal should be rallying around Arnold Schwarzenegger, because he's a natural leader who has as his goal getting California's economic engine moving again," said Rep. David Dreier, R-San Dimas, after Simon made his statement. Dreier, chairman of the House Rules Committee, is a Schwarzenegger adviser.
Dreier had urged Simon, Ueberroth and Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, to get out of the race after Schwarzenegger entered Aug. 6. Issa, who funded the recall drive, did withdraw, saying later that others should do the same.
The Lincoln Club of Orange County, which includes some of the state's most prolific Republican donors, endorsed Schwarzenegger on Friday and called on the other Republican candidates to abandon the race. California Republican Party Chairman Duf Sundheim and State Senate Minority Leader Jim Brulte both spoke publicly in recent days about the need to narrow the GOP field, though without mentioning candidates by name.
Sundheim applauded Simon's announcement.
"Bill's decision to leave the race certainly will boost our efforts to put a Republican in the governor's office," he said in a statement.
Schwarzenegger said he hoped Simon's decision would unify the party.
"Bill Simon is a friend and man I respect. I know his decision today, which he called me about personally, was difficult for him and Cindy. Bill has strong convictions and a passion for ideas that will benefit California and its people. He will continue to be a force for change. I hope Bill's personal sacrifice will serve to unify Republicans and other Californians who are eager to join the movement to give California back its future," Schwarzenegger's statement said.
Asked Friday while campaigning in Huntington Beach whether he was encouraging anyone to leave the race, Schwarzenegger said he wasn't, but he made his preference clear. "Obviously, mathematically speaking, it's wiser to only have one candidate," he said.
McClintock campaign spokesman Joe Giardiello insisted Saturday that McClintock would stay in the race and he cast Simon's exit as good news. McClintock can now claim to be the one conservative choice.
In a shot at Schwarzenegger, Giardiello said the recall is now "a race between Gray Davis' right-hand man, an untested candidate who may or may or may not raise taxes, and McClintock, who has been fighting for fiscal reforms that we need for 20 years."
Ueberroth consultant Dan Schnur said Ueberroth also was staying in and was not feeling pressure to get out. Ueberroth is seeking to present himself as an independent and tested problem-solver.
Davis, who spoke to a Hispanic organization Saturday in Orange County, said afterward that the announcement was of little significance, since Simon is on a separate part of the ballot where voters choose a replacement.
"We're still focused on defeating question one on the ballot," said Gabriel Sanchez, spokesman for Davis' campaign committee. "Question two has become a sideshow with one less clown."
Bustamante said he was not surprised by Simon's decision and had always considered Schwarzenegger, McClintock and Ueberroth his competition.
"Simon has never made a major commitment to this campaign. He was never one of the four," Bustamante said after attending the swearing-in of Los Angeles City Councilman Tony Cardenas.
Simon, 52, the son of former U.S. Treasury secretary William E. Simon Sr., is a social conservative who was a political unknown before his surprise win in the Republican primary last year. He ran a stumbling campaign and lost to Davis by five percentage points in November.
The Los Angeles businessman entered the recall election with support from a band of loyalists, but he was not getting the contributions or endorsements he needed. As recently as this week, though, Simon insisted he would stay in the race and spend his own money to win. Asked Thursday in Fresno whether he would drop out if polls continued to show him lagging, he said, "If Moses had taken a poll, he'd still be in Egypt."
Forbes said Simon informed senior staff of his decision Friday evening and called Schwarzenegger Saturday morning. He said Simon would not be available for interviews.
The first question on the ballot asks if the governor should be recalled. The second asks which person among the list of candidates should replace him. Simon's name will still appear on that list, even though he won't be actively campaigning, because it is too late to remove it.