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Jewish World Review Feb. 21, 2002 / 9 Adar, 5762

John H. Fund

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Slippery Slope: Can Dick Riordan beat California's Democratic governor? -- SACRAMENTO | Former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan thought he had the Republican primary for governor in the bag. So he planned a four-day Idaho ski trip just a few weeks before the March 5 primary. That was before this month's GOP state convention in San Jose, which showcased the anti-Riordan sentiment. Former governor George Deukmejian and three past GOP state chairmen announced they wouldn't vote for Mr. Riordan against the Democratic incumbent, Gray Davis. Now Mr. Riordan is skipping the slopes and preparing for the tough sledding ahead.

The former mayor, who left office last year after two successful terms, is still favored to win the primary, because two opponents will be dividing the anti-Riordan vote. Conservative businessman Bill Simon has become the candidate of choice for activists, and he was the winner of the straw poll at the state convention. Secretary of State Bill Jones is the only GOP statewide elected official in California, but the party establishment is still giving him the cold shoulder over his 11th-hour endorsement of John McCain over George W. Bush in 2000.

That party establishment has rallied behind Mr. Riordan, who combines impressive name recognition in the huge Los Angeles media market with a proven appeal to Democratic and independent voters. In addition, California's most visible conservative House members, including Dana Rohrabacher and Chris Cox, have endorsed Mr. Riordan as the candidate most likely to oust Gov. Davis.

But the Riordan campaign has hardly inspired confidence so far. The candidate is charmingly unscripted, and reporters who once enjoyed his gaffes without reporting them are now subjecting him to a new level of scrutiny as a gubernatorial candidate. Mr. Riordan was also slow to respond to $6 million worth of attack ads that Mr. Davis's political strategist Garry South launched this month. One brutal ad asked how the ex-mayor could square his pro-choice position with a decade-old interview in which Mr. Riordan said abortion was murder.

Then Mr. Riordan walked into the GOP state convention seemingly unprepared for a revolt in the party base, which has felt neglected and shunned by the Riordan campaign. Three former state party chairmen issued a statement declaring that "Dick Riordan is no Republican."

Next came an icy blast from Mr. Deukmejian, who supports Mr. Jones. "Dick Riordan has given millions of dollars to Democrats, including Gray Davis," the former governor told a news conference. "He tries to be all things to all people." Asked about Mr. Deukmejian's blast during a debate with his two opponents, Mr. Riordan commented "George has a bad memory. The only thing he remembers are his grudges." The crowd booed, and Mr. Riordan later had to apologize.

On issues, Mr. Riordan has chosen to emphasize style over substance. He has said he won't specify how he would close the state's $12 billion budget deficit until May, when the final budget numbers are ready. On taxes, his views are murky. He says he is open to an Internet sales tax and has expressed reservations about Proposition 13, the 1978 property-tax-cutting initiative that is article of faith among California conservatives.

Mr. Riordan is vulnerable to movement conservative Bill Simon, who is more in line with the fundamentally conservative GOP voters who turn out for party primaries. Mr. Simon has a crisp agenda and the resources to finance much of his race independently. He also enjoys the endorsement of Rudy Giuliani, for whom he once worked as a federal prosecutor. But so far Mr. Simon, who has never run for office before, has been unwilling to take the gloves off against Mr. Riordan, a personal friend who goes to the same Catholic church he does.

What worries California Republicans is that Gov. Davis will have no such reservations in the general election should Mr. Riordan win the GOP primary. While an ineffective leader with approval ratings of below 40%, Mr. Davis is a master at political search-and-destroy missions. He will use the $30 million his fund-raising machine has amassed to pound the 71-year-old Mr. Riordan as unfocused and out of touch. If Mr. Riordan survives the primary but significantly alienates conservative voters, he may have problems turning out the Republican base this fall, while at the same time Davis attack ads peel away his support from independents and Democrats. "What should be a referendum on Gray Davis' lack of leadership could turn into a referendum on Riordan's credibility," says political analyst Arnie Steinberg.

Republicans are wondering if their dream candidate in California could become part of a nightmare scenario come November. That could be bad news for President Bush. He won without California in 2000, but the White House can't ignore a state that delivers 20% of the electoral votes needed to elect a president.

Comment on JWR contributor John H. Fund's column by clicking here.


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02/22/01: Forgetting our heroes
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©2001, John H. Fund