- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 5, 2002

STANFORD, Calif. — California is America's entertainment capital. So it's fitting that the state's Republican gubernatorial primary is downright eye-catching, even if it may turn out to be an eyesore for the Bush White House.

Today, Californians will choose one of three men to take on incumbent Gov. Gray Davis: former Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordan, investment banker William Simon Jr., and California Secretary of State Bill Jones. Mr. Riordan, a pro-choice moderate, has the White House's tacit support. Mr. Jones, a conservative-centrist and the only Republican to hold statewide office, does not; he defected to John McCain following the 2000 New Hampshire primary, earning him a spot next to Barney and Rex in the Bush doghouse. As for Mr. Simon, he's a political novice an "empowerment" conservative in the mold of Jack Kemp and Steve Forbes.

Theoretically, this primary should have been a cakewalk for Mr. Riordan. He's independently wealthy, with a Rolodex chock full of friends who can make six-figure donations. More importantly, he enjoys high name recognition in Southern California, which will account for nearly half of the primary's electorate. That's a huge advantage in a contest where voters have all of six weeks from the first GOP debate to primary day to make an informed choice.

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But a funny thing happened on the way to the cakewalk. Depending on who's doing the spinning, Mr. Riordan either stumbled on his own, or he was bloodied by a series of attacks on his character and his record, with one of the toughest hits coming from former California Gov. George Deukmejian, who's never forgiven Mr. Riordan for lending money to former L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley, Mr. Deukmejian's Democratic opponent in the 1982 and 1986 gubernatorial contests.

Either way, Mr. Riordan's once-commanding lead is now a deficit; polls have Mr. Riordan trailing Mr. Simon by 6 to 9 percent. A "March Surprise" is no longer a longshot.

So why does this matter to Republicans? George Bush didn't need California to win in 2002, and he may not need it again. If the election were held today, Mr. Bush might very well tack on a few states he nearly won the last time around, like New Mexico, Wisconsin, Washington and Oregon.

Still, California exemplifies the president's challenge in widening the Republican base indeed, the Golden State is the Everest of the GOP's uphill climbs. While Mr. Bush is popular in California his job-approval rating hovers around 70 percent his party is not. No Republican has won a presidential or U.S. Senate contest here since 1988. Among registered voters, Republicans now trail Democrats 45 percent to 35 percent, a gap of some 1.7 million potential votes.

So why should Republicans bother to "climb" California? Not because it's there, but because if the GOP reclaims the state, the Democrats won't return to the White House for a long time. Give Mr. Bush the combination of Texas, Florida and California, and he's 40 percent of the way to re-election. A Democrat would have to win two-thirds of the remaining electoral votes, and that simply won't happen, given the GOP's advantage in the Deep South and Great Plains.

But how does one scale the mountain? The Bush White House is smart enough to recognize that Republicans have an image problem in California among middle-of-the-road voters, the party is viewed as too conservative on abortion, the environment, and tolerance of gays and minorities. Putting a less-conservative candidate like Mr. Riordan at the top of the ticket, ostensibly to make inroads into women and Hispanic voting blocs made sense, both for winning in 2002 and getting a running start at '04. Polls show Mr. Riordan running neck-and-neck with Mr. Davis in a hypothetical November matchup.

But as March 5 approaches and Mr. Riordan's lead continues to shrink, what seemed like a no-brainer of a primary is now a second-guesser's delight. Should Mr. Riordan lose, would it be because his past donations to Democrats, unorthodox style and lack of deep Republican ties were too much for rank-and-file Republicans to take a square peg who couldn't fit into a round hole? Or would it be that Mr. Riordan miscalculated by angering too many conservatives in a low-turnout primary? Is a Riordan loss a message to the Bush White House to go easy on moving Republican state parties toward the center?

This much we do know. The morning after the primary, California Republicans will gather in Los Angeles for their traditional "unity" breakfast. The featured speaker will be a moderate trying to make peace with angry conservatives. Or it will be a surprise conservative winner, trying to appeal to moderates to put aside their differences.

Coming as it does not too far from Hollywood, that breakfast will be highly entertaining, not to mention highly informative as to the GOP's chances of becoming America's majority party.

Bill Whalen is a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

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