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Conservatives Are California Dreamin'
February 27, 2002

By James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
contributor to

In California politics, fortunes can turn very quickly. Just ask Richard Riordan.

Some saw the former L.A. mayor as the GOP's best hope of beating current governor Gray Davis. But Riordan is presently watching his lead wither away.

According to a recent Los Angeles Times poll, Riordan is virtually tied with conservative candidate Bill Simon, and only a week remains before the primary. Among likely Republican primary voters, Riordan and Simon appear to be locked at 31 percent of the vote each.

How could this turn of events have happened? When all is said and done, it may be that in running his campaign Riordan made a pretty big strategic blunder ­ he took the primary for granted.

Like a playoff team that overlooks the qualifying round, Riordan seemed to focus on the general election from the start. He courted the California voter rather than the Republican voter by adopting the proverbial "big tent" strategy: Downplay party affiliation and emphasize inclusiveness.

On the other hand, Simon targeted the Republican base, the grassroots conservatives who care about the party's core values. His ads adorned him with a true conservative Republican identity.

Then there was the wild card that flew in from Ground Zero, our first "national mayor," Rudy Giuliani. Simon worked for Giuliani in the U.S. attorney's office in New York during the 1980s.

Simon went out on tour with his prominent endorser. Giuliani said he was accompanying Simon as an "expert witness." He vouched for the candidate's character as he discussed Simon's experience in law enforcement, business and philanthropy. Giuliani told a packed house in Orange County that the fact that Bill Simon never ran for political office before now is an asset, not a liability. The former New York mayor pointed out that both he himself and President George W. Bush were in the same situation when each first ran for public office.

Simon continued to benefit from the "honor by association" as Giuliani made additional appearances alongside the candidate in Sacramento and San Francisco.

Now it looks as though Riordan, as a result of the loss of his front-runner status, is going to try and make a sharp right turn.

In a recent Sacramento radio interview, Riordan made an appeal to the NRA crowd. He indicated that although he supports restrictions on automatic assault weapons and Saturday night specials, he also supports the right to bear arms and believes no additional gun laws are needed. Riordan's ads tout the former mayor's fiscal responsibility, tough stand on crime and support of the death penalty.

In contrast, Simon is sticking with the issues that appear to have brought him success ­ no new taxes, responsible budgeting, sensible policy on energy and improved education.

Still, when all the dust settles, the critical factor is going to be who gets out the vote. Only registered Republicans can vote in this primary election. There doesn't seem to be an issue or initiative that is particularly stirring to voters this time around. The secretary of state's office is predicting a low turnout.

This would tend to favor Simon, because the base will most likely vote regardless of the lack of hot-button issues. Simon's appeal to conservative activists will pay dividends if Riordan is unable to create a sense of urgency for his supporters to come out. In an interview last July, Simon told NewsMax that he wanted to avoid personal attacks in his campaign. He has recently had to launch some in response to Riordan's attacks on his experience.

The Davis campaign, flush with money, has engaged in a systematic set of ads designed to bring down Riordan's numbers. Davis' campaign spent $8 million on television commercials attacking Riordan as soft on the death penalty and lukewarm in his support of abortion rights. The ads seemed to have given a boost to the Simon campaign while at the same time chipping away at Riordan's numbers.

Davis' people are apparently under the assumption that it will be easier to run against Simon than against Riordan. They have caused Riordan to spend more money than he would have ordinarily, and he is now more vulnerable to the Gray Davis war chest.

This is a political déjà vu. Pat Brown was also sure he could easily beat a Republican candidate who had never held elective office. Brown got his wish when he was able to run against Ronald Reagan.

Simon has a Reaganesque quality that energizes the Republican base. Could it be that history is about to repeat itself?

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James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.

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