- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 24, 2002

The battle for the California Republican gubernatorial nomination is heating up, as conservative businessman Bill Simon closes in on front-runner Richard Riordan, former Los Angeles mayor, in the weeks before the March 5 primary.
"There's no question that this has turned into a much closer primary than anyone would have imagined a couple months ago," said Dan Schnur, California Republican strategist.
Democrats supporting Gov. Gray Davis, who is running virtually unopposed in the Democratic primary, put it differently. "Anyone watching … would think there's more trouble in the California Republican Party than with the Afghan warlords," said Bob Mulholland, a campaign adviser to the California Democratic Party.
A poll released last week by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) showed Mr. Simon making a 20 percentage point gain over about a month and Mr. Riordan holding steady. The poll, taken Feb. 4-14, had Mr. Riordan with 41 percent of support from likely Republican primary voters, Mr. Simon with 24 percent and Secretary of State Bill Jones with 9 percent.
In an early January PPIC poll, Mr. Riordan had 41 percent, Mr. Jones had 13 percent and Mr. Simon had 4 percent.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported Friday that the race may be closer, citing a Feb. 13 survey by pollsters for a ballot referendum to alter the state term limits law. That survey found Mr. Riordan with 31 percent, Mr. Simon with 27 percent and Mr. Jones with 21 percent.
Mr. Riordan, who is pro-choice, has worked to appeal to moderate California voters, positioning himself for a race against Mr. Davis. But in doing so, he may have alienated his conservative Republican base.
"While he was focusing on the political center, it opened up the opportunity for Mr. Simon among the conservatives," Mr. Schnur said.
Mark Baldassare, director of the PPIC polls, said undecided conservatives seem to have moved into the Simon camp.
Sal Russo, adviser for Mr. Simon, said Mr. Riordan has moved too far to the left and is "out of touch with what the average Republican thinks."
Mr. Riordan's spokesman, Matt Szabo, dismissed that, noting that his boss has a strong record on Republican issues such as fighting crime. "If there's one thing Republicans in California agree on, it's that they want Davis removed from office next November, and they know Dick Riordan's the guy to do that."
Mr. Szabo also pointed out that the Riordan camp has been busy fending off a nearly $8 million "negative smear campaign" by Mr. Davis.
Mr. Davis has run ads accusing Mr. Riordan of flip-flopping on many issues, including abortion, and "trying to be all things for all people," said Davis spokesman Roger Salazar.
The tightening primary race has prompted Mr. Riordan to focus on Mr. Simon for now. He launched an ad last week criticizing Mr. Simon for failing to vote several times and for his association with a failed savings and loan.
Mr. Simon struck back with an ad accusing Mr. Riordan of pandering to Democrats and forsaking the very party he wants to represent.
Meanwhile, the conservative Jones camp, which has less money than the other two, is hoping to take advantage of the Simon-Riordan focus to "shoot in between them as they're fighting" and win the primary, said Jones spokesman Darrel Ng.
Mr. Jones ran an ad criticizing both men Mr. Simon for his lack of experience and failure to vote in some California primaries and Mr. Riordan for his "millions of dollars" in donations to Democrats, Mr. Ng said.
Meanwhile, Mr. Davis appears to be in a vulnerable spot. The latest PPIC poll shows Mr. Riordan with a slight lead over Mr. Davis in a hypothetical match-up. It also found the other two Republicans have narrowed the gap between themselves and Mr. Davis since January. In hypothetical match-ups, Mr. Davis leads Mr. Simon by 4 percent and Mr. Jones by 5 percent, the latest PPIC poll found.

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