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Run for governor a test of GOP's will to win

December 31, 2001

Viewpoint by Thomas Elias

Never before has California's Republican Party suffered through so depressing a time as in the last three years, first losing all but one statewide office to the Democrats in the 1998 elections and a subsequent insurance department scandal, then falling to the lowest numbers in the Legislature for either major party in more than 50 years.

But the new year brings the GOP a real opportunity, the chance to nominate a candidate — former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan — who actually appeals beyond the ultra-conservatives who have controlled the party for the last decade and stands a real chance of drawing votes from Democrats and independents. In short, he is a candidate with a chance to take back the governor's office and possibly lead some other Republicans into office.

The price for taking advantage of that opportunity would be giving up on some of the party's most dearly held platform planks. No, the GOP would not formally have to endorse abortion-on-demand or gun control. But its activists would have to accept Riordan, a candidate who does not share much of their ideology or believe in some of their platform dogma.


Riordan, thus, presents Republicans with a test of their will to win. Every major poll of the last few months shows him even with or slightly ahead of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. The same surveys show his intra-party rivals, financier William Simon Jr. and Secretary of State Bill Jones, trailing Davis by wide margins despite the low rating Davis gets.

So far, many of the party's most conservative figures are acting like they prefer victory to ideology. Folks like David Dreier, the congressman from eastern Los Angeles County who ranks high among his party's leadership in the House, and Orange County Congressman Dana Rohrabacher are joined by bunches of conservative legislators in backing Riordan.

And the 71-year-old Riordan might not even be running, but for the encouragement he received from President Bush and some of his closest advisers.

Endorsements, though, never count for much in California. The real question is whether rank-and-file Republican primary voters in March will accept a candidate who is not ideologically pure. Some county chairs — like Phyllis Dustman of Modoc County and John Gallagher of Plumas County — are loath to accept Riordan.

They object to his longtime stances on their key issues and they like even less his past donations to Democratic candidates, including Davis and the liberal U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer.

Jones and Simon steadily attack Riordan on the party-loyalty front. In one speech to the Sacramento Press Club, Jones opined that "the Republican Party must open its hearts and our arms to all." But its candidate for governor, he quickly added, should "at the very least have supported exclusively Republican candidates."

Simon noted that Riordan, a wealthy lawyer who specialized in corporate turn-arounds before entering politics, has contributed more than $1 million to Democratic candidates over the last 20 or so years.

"You have to

look at scale," Simon said.

Also sticking in Republican craws are the Democrats backing Riordan, including former Jimmy Carter pollster and adviser Patrick Caddell and Susan Estrich, a USC law professor who ran the 1988 presidential campaign of Democrat Michael Dukakis.

Jones and Simon run the risk of splitting the purist vote in the primary and giving Riordan a plurality. When more than two candidates seek a nomination, the nod goes to the one with the most votes. No majority is required.

That's why many still speculate either the inexperienced and still little-known Simon or the underfunded Jones will get out of the race and allow conservative Republicans less chance to divide and be conquered. Some

wonder whether Simon, a longtime friend and near-neighbor of Riordan's in the plush Brentwood district of Los Angeles, is in the race merely to take conservative votes from Jones and thus give Riordan the nomination.

Certainly, Riordan has a better shot at an easy March victory if both stay in than if one drops out.

What's public so far is that neither Simon nor Jones shows any willingness to quit, no matter how poorly they fare in the polls.

That would suit Riordan just fine, and actually give their party a chance for victory in November, despite all those who have opined since 1998 that California is now a solidly Democratic state.

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