How Riordan Lost California's Primary

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The staff planning Richard Riordan's run for California Governor had a three-pronged strategy. They wanted their candidate to attack Democratic Governor Gray Davis on the economy, lack of fiscal discipline in the state budget, and education — all Davis weaknesses. So what did Riordan do on the stump? He only talked about gay rights, abortion and women. Which party's nomination was he running for? And why was his campaign focused on Gray Davis during the primary?

One reason is that Davis was locked in on him. The governor spent $10 million on ads attacking Riordan, in part because Davis wanted to run in the general election against a guy he figured would be easier to beat, businessman Bill Simon. But Davis wasn't the reason Riordan went from a 60-point lead in the polls to an 18-point loss Tuesday. And Simon, a guy with no political experience who shocked everyone by wining the GOP nomination, wasn't the reason either. Riordan has only himself to blame, for a lackluster campaign that he was never prepared to run.

President Bush and his political guru Karl Rove were big Riordan backers, and the former Los Angeles mayor came back into politics at Bush's urging. But Riordan never seemed especially enthused. He didn't bother to prepare for politics outside Los Angeles. He displayed little knowledge of statewide issues, once telling farmers that his plan for helping agriculture was to hire the best experts on the subject.

Meanwhile, his staff kept turning over, disillusioned by the candidate's lack of focus and refusal to stay on message. Riordan never built ties to Republican consultants when he was mayor of a big Democratic city, and the GOP folks he hired for this race kept quitting on him. Communication was a problem. His staff didn't even know about a 1991 TV interview in which the supposedly pro-choice Riordan condemned abortion as murder until newspapers reported it. Davis, who saw in Riordan a moderate Republican who was his most dangerous potential opponent in the general election, jumped all over that, running ads showing the damaging clip.

Now Davis has the Republican he wants. But he may regret what he paid for. Simon, an investment guru with a portfolio of liabilities Riordan could have used against him — he's never held office before, he's voted only sporadically, and he's only lived in California for 12 years — still ran a surprisingly strong campaign. He took a slow, prudent approach to the primary, getting his name out and wooing key party leaders. But he'll have to ratchet up his game if he plans to beat Davis, who despite his gray personality is a smart and tenacious campaigner. The governor is already painting Simon as the second coming of Pat Buchanan.

For their part, Bush and Rove didn't lose as much as some claim when their anointed candidate crashed and burned. But they were reminded that all politics is local. The President, despite his high popularity, cannot carry a candidate by himself. Still, Simon will take the help, and Bush is already reaching out. He called Simon at a post primary party, and told him "I know you can beat Gray Davis and I want to help you in any way I can."

Riordan's biggest mistake was ignoring Bill Simon until it was too late. He thought his party would see him as the only hope of beating Davis and, thinking he already had the nomination sewn up, played up his moderate side, even scheduling a gay rights breakfast. Davis hit him from one side with ads calling him a flip-flopper. Simon hit him from the other, playing on the party faithful's doubts about what Riordan stood for. Voters listened to them both.