PALM SPRINGS, Calif. - Chatting in a coffee shop with his wife and two reporters, Richard Riordan is asked if he's enjoying his unexpectedly rough run for governor of California.
"I haven't had so much fun," he says dryly, "since my dog died."
The 71-year-old Riordan, hammered from all sides by TV attack ads, has seen his big lead in the polls slip away. Suddenly, the former Los Angeles mayor is no longer a safe bet to survive next week's GOP primary election.
A social liberal, Riordan wants to fashion what he calls a "new Republican Party" in the nation's most populous state. But he's getting increasingly stiff resistance from the old party, the one that hasn't won a presidential contest here since the 1980s and that lost the governorship four years ago.
Republican veterans say Riordan has made several classic blunders: He was overconfident and took a primary victory for granted. He responded too slowly to attacks on his character. Perhaps most important, he alienated his party's conservative base, which will cast the largest number of ballots Tuesday.
"I think Dick has made some mistakes," says Dr. Tirso del Junco, who served as state party chairman when Ronald Reagan was president and Republicans were gaining in California. "He was not sensitive to his image as a Republican. You've got to win the primary, and this is what I think is hurting him."
A new statewide poll shows Riordan falling into a dead heat with Bill Simon Jr., 50, a wealthy, conservative businessman who moved from New Jersey just over a decade ago. Simon's candidacy began taking off when he aired an endorsement commercial featuring former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who was his boss in the U.S. attorney's office in the 1980s.
According to the new survey, published in yesterday's Los Angeles Times, a majority of likely primary voters reject Riordan's argument that the Republican Party needs to adopt a more moderate stance on issues such as abortion. At the same time, most of those surveyed say Riordan would be the strongest GOP contender in November.
Those results suggest that a significant number of Republican primary voters are prepared to lose the governor's race, rather than nominate someone who does not share their conservative views.
"Passion is starting to trump pragmatism," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College near Los Angeles.
An embarrassing setback
A Riordan defeat would deal an embarrassing setback to the Bush White House, which encouraged the former mayor to run. Riordan has proven appeal to Democrats and to the fast-growing Latino vote, about one-sixth of the state electorate, which turned away from Republicans because of the party's anti-immigrant image.
In 2000, George W. Bush lost California to Al Gore by 1.3 million votes. Eager to put the largest state within reach of Bush and other Republicans in national elections, all but four of California's 20 Republican congressmen have endorsed Riordan, including such staunch conservatives as Rep. Dana Rohrabacher.
"We know we have to send a signal to the people in Washington that California is a winnable state," says Jim Brulte, the Republican leader of the state Senate and a White House adviser, who is neutral in the primary.
If Riordan loses, it would be a stunning strategic success for Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. The incumbent, who faces no credible opposition in his own party but is considered vulnerable in November, has poured more than $9 million into a TV ad drive attacking Riordan.
Riordan concedes that he was surprised by the Democrat's audacious campaign to defeat him in the Republican primary. "That's got to be a first, historically," he says.
The governor's ploy is an attempt, in effect, to select his November opponent. If Davis succeeds in stopping Riordan, the Republican with seemingly the best chance to unseat him, the governor would most likely face the politically inexperienced Simon, whose views on social issues are out of the mainstream for California.
"It would be extremely difficult for Simon to win," says Pitney, a former Republican National Committee research director. Simon and the third-place contender in the primary race, Secretary of State Bill Jones, oppose abortion rights, a serious political handicap, polls show.
In a state that likes to think of itself as being on the cutting edge, Republicans have become "an endangered species," Riordan says in an interview. "And if Simon and Jones have their way, we'd be an extinct species, because they're saying our platform should be pro-life. Which means if you're pro-choice, don't be a Republican."
Riordan, who once described abortion as "murder" but favors abortion rights, agrees with strategists who say that anti-abortion candidates cannot win high-profile statewide contests in California.
"We lost a million and a half women's votes in the Republican Party in the last two general elections," he says. "Women use the words 'pro-life' as a shorthand for saying that a person doesn't like children, doesn't like education, doesn't like health care. It's just somebody that they don't think cares for the important issues."
Democrats among advisers
Riordan, a wealthy businessman who came to politics late in life, seems an unlikely savior for his party.
His informal circle of advisers contains some prominent Democrats, including former President Jimmy Carter's pollster and Michael S. Dukakis' presidential campaign manager.
Nancy Daly Riordan, his third wife, is a top Democratic fund-raiser who cannot vote for her husband next week. (It would have been "disingenuous," she says, to drop her Democratic registration just to be eligible for the Republican primary.)
Her $3,000 in campaign contributions to Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, an undeclared candidate for Maryland governor, recently became the focus of attacks on Riordan by fellow Republicans.
Riordan himself has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Democratic candidates over the years, including for former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley against conservative Republican Gov. George Deukmejian in the 1980s.
Deukmejian now denounces Riordan as not "trustworthy" and says he won't support him even if he's the nominee. His criticism has been used in both Republican and Democratic attack ads against Riordan.
Perhaps the most devastating negative ad is a Simon commercial that shows Riordan jogging with President Bill Clinton and quotes him praising Clinton in 2000 as "the greatest leader of the free world." Riordan defends his dealings with Clinton as a necessary part of his job as mayor of Los Angeles, a heavily Democratic city that played host to the 2000 Democratic National Convention.
"That [picture] proved that the relationship with Clinton was not a business relationship, that he was actually a Clinton pal," says Sal Russo, chief strategist for Simon, whose father served in the Nixon Cabinet. He says Simon's internal polls showed Riordan's support dropping once the ads, which accuse the former mayor of being "ashamed to be a Republican," began airing last week.
Riordan, whose brother, Bill, was a well-known tennis promoter in Salisbury, Md., likes to revel in his image as a nonpolitician. He describes himself as a "rescuer" who wants to come to the aid of his state, much as he did when his hometown of Los Angeles was struggling in the early 1990s.
But he'll need to revive his candidacy first, which won't be easy.
"It's hard to make a souffle rise twice," says Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategist who advised Riordan's 1997 re-election campaign. "The voters who have been disenchanted and disappointed with him have to be lured back. That's always a hard thing to get accomplished."