California Roll

LA mayor Richard Riordan
In her latest commentary, CBS News Senior Political Editor Dotty Lynch takes a look at the California governor's race.

It's a sad thing to see a newspaper fall out of love. On January 10, 1989, The New York Times announced on page 1: "Koch Affirmative Action Program Used For Patronage." For years the paper had covered Ed Koch and his political deputy John LoCicero, whom Koch referred to in his first book as my "patronage dispenser." And for years, The New York Times was Koch's biggest cheerleader. By January 1989, the worm had turned and suddenly the paper of record saw things a littler more clearly than it had before.

Last Tuesday, the Los Angeles Times ran the Dick Riordan equivalent: "Riordan Put Lobbyists On 21 City Commissions." This story ran on the front page of the metro section of the newspaper, which covered Riordan's mayoral administration daily from 1993-2001. The relevance to the campaign was that six weeks before Riordan had blasted lobbyists when he in fact had hired them. But the subtler message was that his hometown paper had turned against its fair-haired mayor.

It was that kind of a week for Dick Riordan. On Wednesday, the public polls confirmed what the political pollsters had been seeing for a week: Riordan's big lead had evaporated and novice conservative Bill Simon had surpassed him in the race for the California governor's nomination. By Friday, the White House was sending signals that they saw the handwriting on the wall and wanted Simon to know they were ready to work with him.

Riordan – who had been recruited into the race by Bush advisors Karl Rove and Gerald Parsky, who wanted a moderate Republican who could beat Democrat Gray Davis – was blaming his troubles on conservatives. He might be right, but that's who votes in Republican primaries and most voters would rather be wooed than trashed. At the Republican State Committee meeting, a group dominated by conservatives, Riordan attacked former Gov. George Deukmejian, a conservative icon. Deukmejian, the chair of the Jones campaign, said that he could never vote for Riordan, who fired back, saying "George has a bad memory. The only thing he never forgets are his grudges." The joke backfired and was greeted by boos and hisses. Simon beat Riordan in the straw poll at the event by 40 percent to 27 percent.

According to Simon pollster, Public Opinion Strategies' Stephen Kinney, the big powerhouse in the race was former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. "September 11 changed voters priorities," said Kinney, and Giuliani gave star quality and credibility to the first-time candidate. Simon started to move in the polls after Giuliani's first visit in January and an appearance in an ad saying, "Bill Simon can do it."

Riordan's vote stayed in the mid-40s for quite a while, although only 16 percent of voters were "definitely" for him. Then came Gray Davis, who has some serious image problems of his own. He started airing positive ads on his record, but then on Jan. 25 he decided to create some mischief and run a negative ad against Riordan, his likely general election opponent. He claimed that Riordan was not really pro-choice. Riordan engaged in that battle and the said he was too, and the conservatives smelled blood. Simon advisor Kinney says that's when Republican voters started to pay attention.

The last person Riordan expected to attack him was Bill Simon, whom he encouraged to get into the race. Simon and he are (were?) old friends and members of St Monica's parish. But Simon may be more of a politician than Riordan thought, and the mild-mannered son of a former Cabinet secretary decided to go for broke. On Feb. 21, the day after Riordan put out an ad attacking him, Simon ran his first negative ad showing Riordan jogging with Bill Clinton, contrasting that friendship with his own with Giuliani. The Simon campaign followed that with a big TV buy on tax relief, a sure-fire issue for Republican primary voters. He said that he was for it and that Riordan raised taxes a dozen times as mayor.

Riordan's answer seemed to be that Ronald Reagan raised taxes too, which wasn't much of a comeback. By the weekend, the most hotly debated question wasn't who would win on Tuesday, but whether it was Davis' ads or Simon's which were responsible for Riordan's decline.

I think the answer is neither. The real culprit here is Dick Riordan himself. He pulled a McCain – trashing the right while they still held the votes. Last week's L.A. Times poll said that by 52 percent to 40 percent Republican voters think the party should support a candidate who sticks with his conservative principles rather than choose a centrist candidate in order to have a chance of winning in November.

George W. Bush realized that in order to win both the nomination and the general election you needed to hold the base while expanding it. Compassionate conservatism allowed him to do that. Riordan, who is said by his friend Eli Broad to be shocked by what's happened, got into the general election before he had the primary sewed up.

Of course, Riordan could still pull it out. He has sunk a lot into GOTV but he would go into the general as a wounded candidate. Davis' pollster Paul Maslin says that Davis' decision to "communicate early" is a sign that he knows how to campaign effectively. Riordan ended his campaign claiming that Bill Simon is too extreme for California and the Davis folks are gearing up to take that concept to the limit.

But Bill Simon has shown that he is a pretty good communicator, too. More importantly he's also shown that he's a pretty good hunter. He knows where the ducks are and how to lure them.

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A veteran of the Washington scene, CBS News Senior Political Editor Dotty Lynch provides an inside look at the issues and personalities shaping the political dialogue in the nation's capital and around the country.