A race that could revive California's GOP

L.A.'s former mayor may pose a serious challenge, as Gov. Gray Davis tries to rebound from energy crisis.

The announcement is expected within days, but is regarded as official in all but deed.

In a bid that could breathe life into America's largest state Republican party apparatus - widely pronounced dead after Election 2000 - former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan will be a candidate for California governor in 2002.

The move is expected to credibly challenge the current Democratic hegemony in the state - where the party occupies the governor's office and two Senate seats, holds majorities in both legislative houses, and handed a 12-point win to Al Gore last fall.

The race will undoubtedly be a referendum on Gov. Gray Davis's handling of the state's energy crisis. And it may test the extent to which GOP candidates nationwide will benefit from President Bush's popularity as he wages war on terrorism.

"There is no doubt this is a very serious development - we have a nation solidly united behind a Republican president, and a state Democratic governor who has been handed an electricity problem," says Joe Cerrell, a longtime Democratic consultant. "Riordan's got name recognition, a record to point to, money, and he's hiring the best in the business."

For months now, Mr. Riordan has been crisscrossing the state, raising his profile and taking in pledges toward a stated goal of $35 million. He has already received donations in the millions.

More significant, he already holds a slight edge over the beleaguered Governor Davis, who has slipped in public esteem because of the power crisis here. The Field Poll last month found Riordan ahead 45-42 among statewide voters. More troubling for Davis, 56 percent of nonpartisan voters - the state's fastest-growing segment - view the current governor unfavorably.

While the election is still a ways off - November of next year - analysts say the combination of Riordan's well-known turnaround of Los Angeles, his moderate appeal to blacks, Latinos, and women, alongside Davis's struggles, will make this one of the most closely-watched races of 2002.

A multimillionaire businessman before he became L.A. mayor from 1992-2000, Riordan says he intends to use none of his own money in the campaign. A friend of George W. Bush for 20 years, he says the president encouraged him to run for the governorship in the months after he left the mayor's office in January.

Many analysts say the White House leaned heavily on Riordan to run, viewing him as the only state Republican with a high enough profile to win.

"The Republican situation in California has stood somewhere between perilous and desperate, so [the party] is gravitating toward all the evidence that Riordan is the one that can give them victory," says Alan Heslop, a political analyst at Claremont McKenna College.

Among the reasons Riordan's poll ratings are high, Mr. Heslop says, is his reputation for being a city manager who got things done. One of a host of Republican mayors who took office in the early 1990s with the promise to shrink government and reinvent city management, Riordan is widely considered to have delivered on that promise.

A record of crisis management

Taking over Los Angeles during the state's worst recession of the century, he streamlined bureaucracy, reduced crime, and boosted education and transportation. He also helped the city rebuild after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, which caused $64 billion in damage.

"Riordan is getting a lot of credit for having taken the reins of Los Angeles during its darkest hours, and putting them back on track," says Dan Schnur, a Republican political analyst at the University of California at Berkeley, who was communications director for former GOP Gov. Pete Wilson as well as Sen. John McCain.

Riordan says he can provide the same kind of leadership for the state as a whole.

"The state is going to have 40 million people in the next 10 years, and we are not prepared," Riordan says in a phone interview. "We don't have enough schools, highways, hospitals, housing, water, or transportation infrastructure. You need a competent manager to get those things. I have demonstrated I can do that."

Negatives of his own

There are a host of negatives for Riordan, however. His age (71) is on the high end of acceptability to many voters, although most know he is an avid bicyclist. He is also battling prostate cancer.

Moreover, Riordan is untested in the wider arena of statewide politics.

"This is going to be the toughest campaign he has ever faced," says Mr. Schnur. "Mike Woo and Tom Hayden [his opponents in past mayoral races] were pushovers compared to what Davis and his operatives will try to do to him."

And it's still unclear how the California energy crisis will play out in the end. There have been no rolling blackouts in recent months, and the issue has moved off the front pages, which could be a plus for Davis.

Many here remember the sound thrashing that Governor Wilson gave to Democratic challenger Kathleen Brown, as he came back from a 53-30 percent disadvantage over the course of a year-long campaign.

Much depends on how well Davis handles the deficits the state is now faced with, partly as a result of contracts he has signed to keep lights turned on.

But the governor's current poll numbers are still worrisome, experts say.

"The [power] crisis has waned, and still Davis's numbers are low. That says something about voter concerns over leadership, not just energy," says Sherry Jeffe, a political scientist at the University of Southern California.

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