NEWS ANALYSIS : Campaign of Caricatures Takes Over Mayoral Race : Politics: With two weeks before the election, quest for votes gains a desperate edge. Images overwhelm the issues.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is the campaign equivalent of television's sweeps: that crucial period in which sleaze and sensationalism overwhelm a medium not noted for taking the high road. Now, with two weeks left before Election Day, that time has come in the Los Angeles mayor's race.

Bums, prostitutes and boarded-up buildings on one side. Speeding limousines, racially exclusive country clubs and laid-off workers on the other. These are the competing images of a campaign that seeks to take the 1993 mayor's race to the lowest common denominator.

So nasty have things become that candidate Richard Riordan, addressing a Jewish audience on Monday, sought to blame his rival, Michael Woo, for the swastikas that defaced Riordan signs over the weekend. "It is the logical result of the kind of campaign he has been waging," said Riordan--a charge Woo vehemently denied.

Even before this latest flap, the candidates were substituting shock value for substance in their efforts to engage an electorate that has grown increasingly apathetic toward local political races.

A top aide to Woo maintained that negative advertising is necessary in races like this one, where the electronic media have tended to ignore the serious side of the campaign.

"To the degree that there is less and less media interest in campaigning, the more exaggerated, loud and outrageous you have to be to get through to people," said the aide, who asked not to be named.

"I liken this to set design in the theater. The closer you get, the more you realize the sets are outsized and the colors are wildly overdone. But it's the people way back in the balcony you are trying to reach. And to them it looks realistic.

"It's the same way in a political campaign: To get to the people who haven't paid much attention, you have to exaggerate."

The personal attacks have camouflaged, to some extent, the candidates' similarities on several issues. Both emphasize the need to hire more police, make the City Hall bureaucracy more friendly to business and give parents and teachers more control over the educational system (although Riordan favors splitting up the Los Angeles Unified School District while Woo would keep it intact.)

At a time when both campaigns need to draw distinctions and offer voters clear choices, the temptation to resort to caricature is irresistible.

Woo labors to make Riordan look--in the words of one campaign aide--"like Gordon Gekko," the rapacious villain of "Wall Street," Oliver Stone's movie about 1980s greed. And Riordan seeks to portray Woo as a Little Lord Fauntleroy of the left, a political dilettante who can't deliver.

Riordan struck first. With lurid images of vagrants and prostitutes, he keeps hammering away at the rising crime and fleeing businesses in Hollywood during the time Woo represented the community.

To blunt Riordan's message--which polls showed was having an effect--Woo acted to shift the spotlight off his record. In a series of highly personal ads and a new mailer, he has sought to make his opponent unpalatable to a Democratic majority that has shown some affinity for Riordan's law-and-order rhetoric.

Woo is trying to tie Riordan to right-wing Christian fundamentalists, to junk bond impresario Michael Milken and to business practices that cost thousands of people their jobs. Woo highlights Riordan's former membership in a country club with no black or Jewish members and makes much of a 5-year-old comment--Riordan says it was a bad joke--about "taking lessons in learning how to wave to the poor people."

Campaign officials on both sides say they are merely shining a light on the less flattering aspects of their opponent's record.

"Certainly it is up to us to point out where Riordan's record is at odds with his public posture," said Garry South, Woo's director of communications.

Jadine Nielsen, Riordan's campaign manager, countered that "Woo's attacks are personal . . . attempts at character assassination." She contended that the negative ads about Woo are aimed solely at his public record.

Experts say the strategies of both candidates could backfire, ultimately repelling voters and reducing turnout on Election Day.

"I think the Los Angeles electorate (is) very cynical about negative advertising," said independent political consultant Bill Carrick. "I don't think it's nearly as effective here as people think it is. . . . I think the one thing they do is keep people home."

A more serious consequence of this kind of advertising, Carrick said, is that it could turn the public against the eventual winner, who will need all the good will he can muster to govern effectively in a city with many problems.

"If one of them gets elected because the other guy was a bum, it's not much of a mandate to govern the city. You'll have somebody elected mayor who's in there without an agenda or a platform to launch their mayoralty."

Veteran political consultant Patrick Caddell, who has no role in the mayor's race, argued that candidates who campaign in the fashion of Woo and Riordan do not have the city's best interests at heart.

"We're not dealing with candidates worried about a city that could blow up at any minute, that still has not really recovered from the problems of a year ago, that is under serious financial stress," Caddell said.

"They don't care if the electorate is reduced to 20 people if they get 11 of the votes."

Yet a Riordan-Woo matchup was bound to generate a fair amount of ideological hostility.

Riordan, a venture capitalist who has involved himself for better or worse in the affairs of more than 100 companies, was sure to invite unflattering comparisons with corporate takeover artists. His friendship with junk bond manipulator Milken did not help.

And despite Riordan's considerable philanthropic contributions to inner-city schools and social programs, he was going to be tarred with the brush of the Anglo-Saxon conservative boosterism that is often accused of building the city on the backs of poor and minority residents.

Woo, a product of the 1960s and a former student of city planning at UC Berkeley who, in Riordan's words, "has never had to meet a payroll," also was a ready target for political lampooning. Campaigning as the candidate that poor people and minorities can trust, Woo is being depicted by his rival as the darling of the politically correct whose coddling of illegal immigrants and gun-toting teen-agers belies a contempt for the middle-class voter.

Historian Raphael Sonenshein, who has just published a book about Los Angeles politics, said that the bitter nature of the contest suggests that it is feeding on deep-seated enmities that have charged local politics for many years.

"The history of L.A. for the past 30 years divided along the same lines of crime, race and ideology that are dividing voters today," Sonenshein said.

He pointed to similarities between this campaign and the city's last hotly contested mayor's race--the 1973 contest between Sam Yorty and Tom Bradley.

"You heard the same claims about Bradley that you are hearing about Woo," Sonenshein said. "His critics said he was soft on crime, his supporters said he was the candidate who could bring about racial harmony."

Yorty, like Riordan today, had the endorsement of Ronald Reagan and ran with the support of people worried about rising taxes and runaway crime.

But the historical parallels may end there. Race and class divided Yorty and Bradley. Although Woo's ancestry is Chinese and Riordan's Irish, the two are not entirely dissimilar.

Both grew up in privileged circumstances; they are the sons of prosperous middle-class businessmen who enjoy the good life, including a mutual fondness for vacationing in the French countryside.

And despite the fact that both claim to represent political change, they have had close ties to the Bradley Administration. The mayor has chosen not to endorse either candidate. But in the past, Woo has benefited from the mayor's political support and Riordan has been Bradley's adviser and appointee to important city commissions.

At City Hall, Woo and Riordan are known as insiders who over the years have been criticized for brokering behind-the-scenes deals with some of the most powerful developers in the city.

More than once, Woo has undercut his liberal reputation by quietly advocating commercial projects that were bitterly opposed on environmental grounds. And Riordan's record of giving to Republicans and Democrats, to anti-abortion groups and population-control organizations, has blurred his political identity.

In the end, said Virgil Roberts, a politically active African-American businessman who knows both candidates, the choice may come down to which candidate has the personality best suited to coaxing a stressed out city back to a normal life.

And in that sense, the negative campaigning may not be all bad.

"On the one hand, you have a guy like Woo who relates well to people of all different backgrounds, but who isn't all that impressive in a room full of executives. And then, there is Riordan, his opposite number.

"If all the backbiting and negativity that is surrounding the campaign right now gives people a window on these guys and how they handle pressure situations, maybe it is helpful."

Times staff writer Richard Simon contributed to his story.

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