Jewish World Review Feb. 27, 2002/ 15 Adar, 5762

Wesley Pruden

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Down and dirty in California -- LOS ANGELES | Richard Riordan is about to discover what a lot of Republicans discovered before him. In politics, the high road can lead to oblivion.

He may have discovered it already, and just in time. His commanding lead in the public-opinion polls, leading to the March 5 gubernatorial primaries, has shrunk dramatically in the face of a television blitz not only by his Republican rival, but by the incumbent Democratic governor, Gray Davis, who has no primary opponent.

With only days to go, the Republican race has drawn so tight that some of the shrewdest observers here say it could go either way. Bill Simon, the son of one of the best-known names among Republican conservatives and a successful businessmen in his own right, is now thought to have an even chance to win the primary and oppose Mr. Davis in November.

If the Big Mo were not enough, Mr. Simon, with easy access to his father's old friends and campaign contributors in the East, has more than twice the campaign cash on hand heading into the final fortnight. Mr. Riordan, the former mayor of Los Angeles who was talked into the race by the White House as the latest last best hope to resuscitate the moribund Republican Party in California, will probably have to dip into his own considerable fortune to keep up with the Simon fund raising. George W. Bush's wise men figure that the moderate - liberal, even - Mr. Riordan has the best chance to win back moderate Republicans and the not necessarily loyal Democrats who only yesterday kept California "in play." George W. may need California in '04 if post-September 11 grit, anger and determination subside.

Mr. Simon is running as the authentic conservative, but even that may be relative (as everything in California is). He spent the weekend explaining why he was registered as an independent when he lived in New York two decades ago. Actually, his explanation was not so much an explanation as a brushoff: "I've been a proud Republican for many years and that's all I'm going to say about that." He could have reminded everyone that some of the most successful Republican candidates are former Democrats and independents.

The Democrats are rooting for Mr. Simon, in the risky belief that he will be the easiest Republican to beat in November. Gray Davis has spent a remarkable $8 million so far on television advertising, despite the fact that he has no primary opposition. Most of his ads, like the Simon commercials, assail Richard Riordan. The Democrats may be forgetting that this was the strategy of Pat Brown 36 years ago when a newly minted Republican named Ronald Reagan challenged him for re-election. He wanted to get the Gipper for his November opponent, and the rest is history.

No one reckons young Bill Simon is Ronald Reagan, or even close, but he is clearly counting on energizing the California party's conservatives turned off by Mr. Riordan's turns as a Democrat in drag. In fact, Mr. Riordan celebrates his break with the conservatives on nearly every social issue: homosexual rights, abortion, gun control and immigration reform. "I like him," Mr. Riordan said of his conservative rival as he campaigned at week's end in Palm Springs, "but he can't be elected. He's pro-life, but he will not respect people who are pro-choice." The unspoken corollary, of course, is that Mr. Riordan and most of the people he prefers to hang out with will not respect anyone who is pro-life or for any of the things they're against. It's all of a piece with the polarized nation, a nation still polarized on the social issues despite the pretense of all-for-one and one-for-all solidarity in the wake of September 11.

If he wins the March 5 primary, the former mayor will be positioned just where he wants to be. But the risks are obvious. Arnold Steinberg, once a Riordan wise man but who is sitting out this race, tells the Los Angeles Times: "The campaign emphasizes inclusiveness but seems insufficiently inclusive of Republicans."

In one of his hardest-hitting TV commercials, part of a $7.5 million blitz that began on Friday, Mr. Simon accuses Mr. Riordan of being "ashamed to be a Republican."

"Shame," an emotion not usually associated with California, is thrown about by both the Riordan and Simon camps. In one Riordan commercial - the campaign seems to be conducted almost entirely in the ether - Mr. Simon is accused of complicity in the financial mismanagement of the family's failed savings-and-loan years ago, and of not voting in 13 of 20 elections. Said a Simon spokesman of the commercial: "Mr. Riordan ought to be ashamed of himself." (Left unsaid was the possibility that no one was worth getting excited about in some of those elections, that sometimes a good citizen ought not to encourage the wrong people.)

Mr. Riordan seemed comfortable and even pleased with himself on the high road at the beginning of the campaign. It was he, in fact, who first encouraged Bill Simon, with whom he shared a pew at the same church in Santa Monica, to get into the race. That was before the White House called. Now it's down and dirty, with time running out.

JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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