When Richard Riordan announced his candidacy for California governor, his position looked enviable. The popular former Los Angeles mayor was well set to face Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, beleaguered by an electric-power management fiasco of epic proportion.
The Bush administration was licking its chops over the possibility that Mr. Riordan's centrist leadership could bring the GOP back into contention for the nation's biggest electoral state in presidential races.
Indeed, Republican Riordan's looked so formidable, that Democrats spent a reported $8 million to $10 million in anti-Riordan ads - just to eliminate him in the primary before the governor had to face him in the November election.
But now, far from a runaway success, the Riordan campaign has run into major trouble on its first hurdle: winning tomorrow's Republican primary.
Bill Simon, a lesser known, far more conservative political novice, has galloped ahead of Riordan in one poll - from 41 points behind just four weeks ago. And the deep-pocket businessman, son of former US Treasury Secretary William E. Simon, Sr. is dead even with Riordan in another poll. (Another candidate, Secretary of State Bill Jones, considered more conservative conservative than Mr. Simon, and is running a distant third.)
Polls have already shown Mr. Davis to be highly vulnerable because of massive state debt andquestionable handling of the state's electricity crisis. Some polls say he'd lose the November election to either Riordan or Simon.
"This is the first, really competitive Republican primary in 30 years and one that looks now like it will strain both the state Republican apparatus and its already-strained relationship with the Bush administration," says Bruce Cain, a political analyst at the University of California, Berkeley. "It is clearly making for a tense situation [for] a White House that has hoped for a big tent, middle-of-the-road candidate which can spread the appeal of the party in the state where it has been declared all but dead."
What's behind the dramatic turnaround is as much Davis's savvy strategy as Riordan's inexperience at statewide campaigning - plus Simon's wealth and conservative appeal.
Riordan has suffered significantly from Davis's TV ads highlighting his weaknesses. Those include alleged Riordan flip flops on key issues, from the death penalty to abortion. The ads also spotlight Riordan's moderate position on other issues from gay rights to affirmative action that stand in stark contrast to Simon's purely conservative stances.
The strategy is working, pollsters say, because Davis's ploy to pick off Riordan early, in the latter candidate's own primary, hinges on the fact that the state's Republican primary voting bloc has long been far more conservative than the broader Republican electorate that turns out in the general election.
"Conservatives in California are always searching for the next Ronald Reagan," says Mark Baldassare, of the Public Policy Institute of California. "Davis has played into this beautifully by going after Riordan in front of the electorate in which he's more vulnerable." Early polls showed Riordan beating Davis in a two-way battle, with Riordan showing heavy strength in the Democratic stronghold of Los Angeles County.
Meanwhile, Simon has millions of his own money to spend and has been endorsed by former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, one of the most popular politicians in America. Candidate Simon and six siblings inherited a vast family fortune. He heads an investment firm with $2 billion in assets.
"Simon would not have gotten where he is without Giuliani's help or without his own millions," says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College, in Northfield, Minn. "He was able to come on strong because Giuliani gave him an instant and positive profile, and because of his own checkbook."
Also causing Riordan's slide is lack of political savvy in his first statewide campaign, say experts. Heavily favored in the polls several months ago, he began by aiming at Davis before he'd even secured the nomination.
"Riordan's campaign has made the Keystone Kops look like the Rockettes," says Sherry Jeffe, a political analyst at the University of Southern California.
Another reason for Simon's quick catch-up is, ironically, that he is younger (50) than Riordan (71), and thus an unknown quantity that amounts to a fresh face without negative baggage.
"Simon really has not had to fend off negative attacks while Riordan has," says Mark Di Camillo of the California Poll. "Awareness [by voters] of Simon has doubled in just weeks, and almost by virtue of him being a relative unknown, most of the awareness is positive."
Most observers and, ironically, even most Republican voters, think Riordan is the candidate best able to beat Davis.
"It is very interesting that when asked who has the better chance of defeating Davis in the fall, Republicans choose Riordan 3 to 1 over Simon," says Mr. Di Camillo. "This shows that Republicans are not voting strategically but rather are voting for the candidate they want."
Such lack of cohesion can be devastating to the GOP in the long term, observers say.
"Nationally, Bush is looking to expand the party appeal in a highly Democratic state that he needs for 2004. Even if Simon wins, the party will not be able to reach out to the constituencies that Bush wants and the national party needs to have," says Ms. Jeffe.
In the final week of the campaign, the Riordan camp went on a counteroffensive.
"We are trying to compare Simon's rhetoric with Riordan's record," says Riordan press spokesman Kim Serafin.Simon has never been in public office. Riordan was a two-term mayor of the nation's largest city who balanced eight straight budgets without raising taxes. Simon is associated with mismanagement of both a failed savings and loan company and a Texas energy company.
"Now you know why Gray Davis has spent $8 million trying to defeat Riordan in the primary," says a TV ad playing up and down the state in recent days. "Dick Riordan: The Republican Gray Davis fears the most."