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Jewish World Review March 11, 2002 / 27 Adar, 5762

Michael Barone

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What happens in the eight months until California's general election? --
THE victory of Bill Simon Jr. in the California Republican gubernatorial primary comes as little surprise to those who have been watching the race. Richard Riordan, the former Los Angeles mayor, who over the years had supported Democrats as well as Republicans, started off the race last fall with about 40 percent of the vote. His opponents, businessman Simon and Secretary of State Bill Jones, initially unknown to most voters, essentially started off with zero. That meant that about 60 percent of the votes were up for grabs. And much of the Riordan support was soft: Voters had some positive feelings about him, but in many cases they were probably lightly held.

The smart strategy for Riordan would have been to go positive, with a message that would answer the Roger Mudd question: Why do you want to be governor? What do you want to accomplish? (In 1979, Mudd, then with CBS News, asked Edward Kennedy why he was running for president; Kennedy mumbled and gave no convincing answer.) Instead, Riordan talked a lot about the need to nominate the candidate with the best chance to defeat incumbent Gov. Gray Davis and about abortion, an issue on which most Republican primary voters disagreed with him (he's pro-abortion rights; they're antiabortion). Like many pro-abortion rights Republicans, he complained that abortion opponents talk too much about abortion, and in the process he talked much more about the issue than they do. But this just succeeded in antagonizing antiabortion Republicans, and voters don't think tactically, anyway; they vote not for the candidate with the best chance to win but for the candidate who they believe will do the job the way they'd like it done. It did not help that Riordan made various embarrassing gaffes on the campaign trail. But that could have been part of his charm, as it was when he was running for mayor of Los Angeles in 1993 and 1997, because in those races he gave voters a clear sense of what he wanted to do. He didn't do that in 2002.

Enter Gray Davis. By the end of 2001, Davis had raised some $36 million for his campaign. In the first 10 weeks of 2002, he spent some $10 million on ads–$3 million on positive ads boasting of his record, $7 million on negative ads slamming Riordan. He attacked Riordan for having once said abortion was murder and for questioning capital punishment, and he charged that Riordan flip-flopped on both issues. Davis strategist Garry South says that when the ad blitz began, he had no clue that Riordan would lose the primary; the idea, he said, was to weaken Riordan and to overcome any positive message he sent. But the Davis spots, plus attacks by former Republican Gov. George Deukmejian on Jones's behalf, raised Riordan's negatives. Two weeks before the primary, he was down to about 30 percent of the primary vote–which means that about 70 percent of it was up for grabs.

In there grabbing for a slice was Simon. Unlike Jones, he had money to spend on television. He spent most of it on positive ads, stressing his promise of no new taxes and a capital-gains tax cut, accountability in education, and rebuilding California's infrastructure. He spotlighted his endorsement by Rudolph Giuliani, for whom he worked in the New York U.S. attorney's office in the 1980s. He criticized Davis's handling of the electricity mess and other issues. He lobbed some negative attacks on Riordan as well. Perhaps most important, he established himself as a conservative Republican–like most of the 70 percent of Republican primary voters who were up for grabs. It was only a matter of time until he got most of their votes. He inched up in the polls from 7 percent to 24 percent to 31 percent to 37 percent. On primary day, Simon won 49 percent to Riordan's 31 percent.

The interesting question now is: What happens in the eight months until the general election? Garry South notes that this is the longest gap between a primary and general election for governor in American history (although it's been nearly that long for years in Illinois). Davis's $7 million in ads tearing down Riordan was well spent but irrelevant now that Riordan is not the nominee. His $3 million in positive ads doesn't seem to have done much good. In the latest polls, he was trailing both Simon and Jones by small margins (within the margin of error) in a state that Al Gore carried by a 53 percent to 42 percent margin, even though Bush spent $2 million there and Gore nothing. Fewer people voted in the Democratic than the Republican primary, even though there are 1.5 million more registered Democrats than Republicans. And of the 29 percent of registered Democrats who did vote on Tuesday, 19 percent voted for candidates other than Gray Davis.

Yet the conventional wisdom is that Davis will win because Simon is too conservative for most California voters; in this case the conventional wisdom may very well be right. It is just a question of time before Davis begins running commercials slamming Simon for his positions on abortion (against) and gun control (he got an A from the National Rifle Association). Simon, says South, "is going to be untouchable to many mainstream voters in California." The interesting question is whether opposition to abortion is political death in a high-visibility statewide race in the nation's largest state. There is much evidence that it is. Abortion opponents have consistently lost high-profile races in California since 1990: George H. W. Bush and Senate nominee Bruce Herschensohn in 1992, Bob Dole in 1996, gubernatorial nominee Dan Lungren (by 58 to 38 percent!) in 1998, George W. Bush in 2000. The best anyone has been able to garner is 43 percent of the vote. Only proabortion rights Republicans have won (Pete Wilson in 1990 and 1994) or come close to winning (Senate nominee Michael Huffington in 1994). "I just think the antichoice thing is a killer," says one veteran California Democratic consultant. "Every pro-life candidate has been destroyed since the end of the Cold War."

His reasoning is interesting: When another issue takes precedence–the Cold War, for example–Californians will vote for antiabortion candidates, as they did for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984 and the elder George Bush in 1988. The question today is not where Californians are on abortion, but how important the issue is. Simon barely mentioned it in the primary campaign, and his strategist, Sal Russo, says that he will argue that as governor there's nothing that he could do to abridge the right to abortion; it's been voted into the California Constitution. "When we focus-grouped abortion, there was a big turnoff," Russo says. "They don't want people talking about it a lot. It's not an issue to people." It will be astonishing if Davis does not run an abortion ad. What's not clear is whether a majority of voters will decide that an antiabortion candidate is so alien to their values that he's an unthinkable choice, or whether they will regard it as less important than other issues–including those on which they are ticked off at Gray Davis.

And there are such issues. Davis has always been a careful politician. He served for nearly eight years as Gov. Jerry Brown's chief of staff and learned well from Brown's mistakes. Unlike Brown, he supports capital punishment and takes a tough line on crime (actually, Brown, as mayor of Oakland, has been taking a tough line on crime, too; he, too, has learned from his mistakes). Unlike Brown, he does not appoint wackily liberal judges. Unlike Brown, Davis served in the military in Vietnam, and he likes to let people know it. Davis has taken liberal stands on conservative ballot propositions, but, unlike Brown, he carries them out faithfully–or at least tries to appear to do so–when they pass.

Davis's problems have come when he has faced problems Brown never faced. California's botched electricity deregulation was one. In retrospect, it is plain that if Davis had allowed small rate increases in summer 2000 and had allowed the companies to buy electricity ahead of time, California would have avoided the rate spikes early last year. And Davis's solution–having the state buy electricity delivery systems and enter into long-term contracts for electric power–has left the state heavily indebted and paying much higher rates than it could get now at the marketplace. Davis seems to have acted to shore up his poll numbers in the short term, at the cost of much lower poll numbers in the long term. Voters may not understand the details of the electricity issue, but they know it's a mess.

If abortion utterly disqualifies Simon, all this doesn't matter. But if abortion doesn't disqualify him, it obviously matters very much. Davis has $26 million (and can raise more), but he can't spend it at the $5 million-per-month rate of the primary campaign and make it to November. And he can't spend it all on negative ads aimed at his opponent. His strategy will certainly include positive ads on his accomplishments on education, transportation, public safety. ... Higher test scores, high funding for transportation infrastructure, 3,000 new cops, and tough gun control legislation: California voters will hear about these things some time before November. But it may not be an utterly convincing message. The schools still aren't as good as they should be, especially for Latino children (who account for 1 out of 3 children in California public schools). Traffic can be horrendous: Try getting from Santa Ana to Riverside on Route 91 some afternoon, or out Interstate 580 from the San Francisco Bay area to what used to be "Condit Country" in the Central Valley. High crime, while reduced, is still a worry in some neighborhoods.

The gap between the 40 percent Gray Davis is getting in polls and the 54 percent Al Gore got in 2000 is a measure of how this relatively moderate Democrat is underperforming his party. Part of this may be explained by doubts about Davis's competence; on electricity, for example, he has arguably not performed as well as voters expected. But part of it may reflect a lack of trust. Davis is unbeloved by fellow politicians in both parties (many liberal Democrats hate him); he is a man whose ambition for 30 years has been to be governor of California and who has achieved that ambition by carefully and, over long periods of time, taking popular stands on issues and by quickly seizing opportunities to disqualify his opponents or to persuade them not to run. But does he authentically care about the voters he has tried so hard to please? And can they trust him to serve their interests if he wins a second term and is barred from running for a third?

Clues to the answers to those questions may come from how he handles an issue raised in the primary by Richard Riordan–bilingual education. In 1998, California voters passed Proposition 227, which limited Spanish-language instruction in schools to one year unless parents request a waiver. So-called education experts (and those with a vested interest, like bilingual teacher unions) predicted disaster, but in fact test scores have soared and Latino children are finally being taught English well enough to give them a chance to take advantage of America's opportunities. Davis (and his Republican opponent, Dan Lungren) opposed Proposition 227, but, after it passed, promised to carry it out. He did so through 2001, on occasion creatively and in defiance of liberal Democrats in the Legislature. Now, however, he may be turning the other way. The state Board of Ed ucation, made up of Davis appointees, is considering administrative changes that will allow the vested interests to keep hundreds of thousands of children in Spanish-language instruction for many years. Davis has consistently insisted that his appointees must reflect his policies. If he adheres to that policy, the board will reject the new regulations in its meeting this month. This is not just an arcane issue. There are 4 million Latinos under 18 in California today; how well they learn English could determine the future character of America.

Richard Riordan, in perhaps the finest moment of his campaign, spoke out for the Latino children and against so-called bilingual education. He said of the state Board of Education's proposed regulations, "It's worse than nonsense. It's downright evil." This was obviously a matter of conviction: Riordan was the only major politician to support Proposition 227 and donated a large sum to the campaign to pass it; he has given megabucks to Latino-oriented charities; he really cares about these children and wants to see them succeed in America. If Gray Davis caves to the bilingual education special interests, he will give Bill Simon an opportunity to learn from the man he beat and emphasize an issue that can work for him in several ways. It works on substance: Most California voters continue to back 227–and probably more than ever since they have seen it lead to higher test scores. It works on character: If Davis allows the state Board of Education to subvert the intent of the voters, he will have broken one of his key promises to voters and will have proved himself untrustworthy. Why trust him again? And if Simon cares as much as Riordan, it shows an authenticity that seems lacking in so many political candidates. And the issue works to help a Republican nominee with the particular problem Republicans face in California–their unpopularity among the growing number of Latino voters. The reason: If he explains the issue as Richard Riordan did, it will be clear that he really cares about the future of Latino children, that he wants to give them a chance to achieve in America, that he believes they can and should be interwoven into the American fabric.

The conventional wisdom about the California governor's race is that Simon doesn't have a chance. That conventional wisdom may prove to be right. But it may also prove to be wrong. And if it does, this could be an interesting race, indeed.

Michael Barone Archives

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©2002, Michael Barone