COLUMN ONE : Playing the Big-Name Game : As the election looms, Riordan and Woo try to one-up each other with endorsements. History casts doubt on success of such tactics, but in this race, anything that gets voters to the polls could be crucial.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

How many Bob Hopes does it take to neutralize one Gloria Molina? Does a police union pack more firepower than the Sierra Club? And are there times when a prominent black lawyer matters more than the President of the United States?

The mathematics of political endorsements is dizzily inexact. History shows they often are useless. Pollsters say they cannot measure their effectiveness because people do not like to admit they are voting for a candidate based on someone else's say-so.

Nonetheless, the two men vying to become mayor of Los Angeles have not been able to resist the lure of this time-honored political custom.

And, for once, experts say, they may be right. For although Richard Riordan and Michael Woo may find endorsements an uncertain business, Los Angeles' communities are so fragmented--and both candidates have such deep identity problems--that they need to take chances to build bridges and to rebuild their images. The best strategy may be through surrogates who can reach specific audiences and help get out the vote--crucial here because polls show a lower turnout will favor Riordan and a higher turnout will favor Woo.

So both men have been playing the name game since the April primary. Riordan scored his first coup with attorney Stan Sanders, the leading African-American candidate in the primary. Woo countered with popular County Supervisor Gloria Molina and President Clinton.

This exercise in one-upmanship is intensifying as the June 8 election nears. This week, Riordan picked up the endorsement of the Police Protective League and Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block, while Woo received the blessing of the Rev. Cecil Murray, the influential pastor of First African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Attention also has focused on some of the people who are not in either camp.

"The big question isn't the endorsements they've gotten, but the one they haven't," said Kerman Maddox, a political consultant based in South Los Angeles. Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) "is the only person I know that can generate a substantial turnout, at least where I live," he said. "Hers is the most important in terms of exciting people and getting the vote out."

Mayor Tom Bradley has also stayed out of the fray. Although the value of his endorsement is debatable as his career ends on a less than triumphant note, his silence has deprived Woo of support from one of the city's most revered African-American political figures.

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To the candidates and their campaign staffs, endorsements can be passports of a sort, allowing for political passage through the city's diverse communities.

"When you are dealing with lots of groups, you need to have people who are recognized as significant in that group endorse the candidate," said Bob Burke, the Riordan campaign's liaison with the Jewish community. "The endorsement says to other members of that group, 'I have studied this man's record and I am putting my imprimatur on it.' "

Endorsements also have another important goal--to generate enough excitement to get voters to the polls. Turnout is likely to be critical: Although Woo led among all registered voters surveyed in a recent Times poll, Riordan led among those most likely to turn out Election Day.

The poll also showed that many voters have strong reservations about both Woo and Riordan; the candidates hope that endorsements will soften that resistance.

"There is a deep disaffection and ambivalence about who people should vote for," said City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, who is staying neutral. "For the first time in a really long time, I sense that voters could be influenced by endorsements."

Independent consultant Bill Carrick agreed. "There is a substantial number of people who don't like either Riordan or Woo, so the message of surrogates has been substantially enhanced in this campaign. The campaign is going to be a war about endorsements, rather than one of ideas or ideologies," Carrick said.

In that war, Woo and Riordan have pursued strikingly different strategies.

During the primary, Riordan, a Republican businessman, concentrated on courting conservative voters, his campaign literature festooned with endorsements by former President Ronald Reagan, former HUD Secretary Jack Kemp and Gov. Pete Wilson.

Democratic Councilman Woo built his foundation in the African-American community with the help of a number of ministers and businessmen and with the endorsement of Mark Ridley-Thomas, the City Council's most influential black member.

In the runoff of this officially nonpartisan race, both candidates are competing for the same voters--moderate Democrats--but they again use endorsements differently.

Riordan appears to be trying to break off enough support from Democrats and non-Anglos to prove two points: that he is not the right-wing extremist he has been accused of being and that Woo is not the heir-apparent to the city's ethnic communities.

Woo has pursued a more traditional strategy: trying to hook as many Democrats as he can from all sides of the city in hopes of preserving the multiethnic coalition that kept Bradley in office for 20 years.

To change his image, Riordan has been seeking a spate of "man bites dog" endorsements. He has attracted Democrats including Sanders, Latino City Councilman Richard Alatorre and Los Angeles attorney Ed Sanders, who served as the Carter Administration's liaison to the Jewish Community.

Apart from traditional endorsements, Riordan has relied on another kind of surrogate to help his image: Ordinary citizens of different ethnic backgrounds are pictured in his advertising to counter the barrage of Woo ads that try to link him to Christian fundamentalists and cite his membership in clubs that discriminated against minorities.

Riordan's brochures depict children in Riordan-funded reading labs, college students on Riordan scholarships and social service workers who say they could not have gotten by without his philanthropy.

Woo, meanwhile, has scored big endorsements nationally and locally with President Clinton and Supervisor Molina, a populist politician with a large, loyal following. But he has also suffered disappointments, failing to persuade popular such local figures as Yaroslavsky and Waters to leave the sidelines.

Woo has gained the lion's share of traditional Democratic organizations' support, with the endorsements of the state party and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. Both groups bring a host of volunteers to a voter drive that could make the difference between a heavy Democratic turnout, which should help Woo, and a weak one, which should favor Riordan's conservative base.

Although Woo has tried to depict Riordan as a callous leveraged-buyout artist, the argument can be a tough sell coming from the son of a wealthy businessman.

That's where Molina, a daughter of the barrio, comes in. Campaigning for Woo, Molina can help him on the class issue and on several other fronts, observers said.

"Gloria Molina is clearly the equivalent of a Mickey Mantle rookie card," Carrick said, using baseball card lingo. "She is a three-fer. She is a very popular Latino, a very popular woman and she is perceived as being a thorn in the side of good-old-boy politics. In the endorsement game, she is the best you can have."

Clinton may be less helpful, particularly because in the course of praising Woo the President emphasized that he had no bone to pick with Riordan and said that Los Angeles could expect just as much help from Washington if Riordan were elected. Clinton also warned that presidential endorsements don't always carry a lot of weight with voters. Indeed, Presidents ranging from Woodrow Wilson to Reagan have learned the futility of putting their prestige on the line by endorsing losing candidates.

Although Woo campaign officials have refrained from expressing disappointment over Clinton's tepid endorsement, they acknowledge that even one strong backer cannot turn the tide.

"Standing alone, an endorsement is not decisive," said Garry South, Woo's spokesman. "When you build a campaign, it's like building a big mosaic. All the little fragments must add up to the picture you have painted in the voters' minds when all is said and done."

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In some elections, one key endorsement has made a difference.

City Councilman Hal Bernson's political life was thought to be hanging by a thread in 1991, when challenger Julie Korenstein hammered him, charging that he was too pro-development. But with a single endorsement from then-Police Chief Daryl F. Gates, Bernson swung the spotlight away from that troublesome issue and onto law enforcement and the chief, who was tremendously popular in Bernson's San Fernando Valley district.

Bernson won.

Anti-tax crusader Howard Jarvis also wielded a heavy endorsement cudgel after his tax-slashing Proposition 13 was approved by voters in 1978. Later that year, Jarvis took on 16 anti-Prop. 13 candidates for state and federal office--prevailing in all but two races.

Apart from their publicity value, celebrity endorsements are popular here but often play a less dramatic role. (The backing of entertainer Bill Cosby was not enough to help Stan Sanders in the mayoral primary.)

Still, stars are a fixture of Los Angeles politics, and Woo and Riordan each have their share. Woo has lined up director Oliver Stone and actors Lloyd and Jeff Bridges, Ted Danson and Danny DeVito. Bob Hope, Clint Eastwood and Charlton Heston have come out for Riordan.

The candidates may expect to get more results from brandishing the names of the relatively obscure. "It's always nice to get a Bob Hope or a Michael Douglas," one analyst said. "But this is an election that could turn on the votes of community-minded people who may be more impressed to hear that an Ed Sanders or a (theater executive) Bruce Corwin has signed on with a particular candidate."

After Bradley's unsuccessful bid to become mayor in 1969, he made the strategically wise decision to not rely as much on celebrity endorsements in his winning campaign four years later, historian Raphael Sonenshein said.

"In '69, Bradley got a considerable number of endorsements from well-known outsiders, big-name Democrats," he said. "What happened was a number of Democrats ignored those instructions and voted for Sam Yorty because he spoke to things they were concerned about--issues of race, crime and disorder that are still very much with us.

"Bradley learned his lesson from that campaign. The next time around, he avoided the big-name endorsements and kept them local and grass-roots. He relied much more on the friends and contacts he had made in various community organizations to get the word out."

Endorsements also are used to boost candidates by osmosis--enhancing one's character or bolstering one's ties to hot issues.

When Woo stood shoulder to shoulder with the President during Clinton's last visit to Los Angeles, his campaign staff hoped that Woo's image as a leader would be enhanced.

"We have to convince elements of the city's traditional Democratic coalition that Mike is a leader," said one adviser who asked to remain anonymous.

With crime a top issue for voters, Ed Davis, the tough-talking former city police chief, said both candidates courted him. "They want to strengthen their law enforcement image and vitiate whatever endorsement the other side has," said Davis, who ended up backing Riordan, along with another former LAPD chief, Tom Reddin.

The Police Protective League, which represents rank-and-file officers, is also backing Riordan and is expected to provide substantial get-out-the-vote assistance.

Less personal, but sometimes as effective, endorsements can take the form of ratings issued by interest groups. The Coalition for Economic Survival and the local chapter of the Sierra Club backed Woo, boosting his stock with some renters and nature lovers. The Valley Industry and Commerce Assn. says Riordan is better for business.

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Endorsements sometimes can backfire. In the wrong light, they can create suspicion that a candidate has mortgaged his soul, or at least a chunk of patronage, in return for someone's backing.

Such voter suspicion clouded the campaign of Lyle Hall when he called on former Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. to endorse him in a 1989 Los Angeles City Council race. Hall had hoped to improve his standing with the Valley's Latino community, but the Brown connection wound up alienating his conservative voting base, said Harvey Englander, Hall's campaign consultant.

"And that came back and bit me in the rear like I couldn't believe," said Englander, whose candidate lost to incumbent Ernani Bernardi. "It was one of the worst political decisions I ever made."

Those who bestow endorsements deny that they are motivated by self-interest. But skeptics abound.

Riordan has tried to foment such skepticism by painting Ridley-Thomas' endorsement of Woo as a back-room deal, after Woo agreed to a 10-page plan for the economic rebuilding of South Los Angeles. Ridley-Thomas said he backs Woo as the man who will best serve his constituents. Woo's staff said their candidate made no secret pact and passed out printed copies of the South Los Angeles plan to make their point.

Meanwhile, a confidant of Alatorre's said the councilman's endorsement of Riordan was motivated in part by his belief that Riordan would help keep him in his powerful position as chairman of the board of the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

Alatorre vehemently denied this, saying it was Woo who offered him the MTA position, and that he had backed Riordan because he wanted to give a non-politician a chance to run the city.

And the Woo campaign has charged that Sanders, a possible City Council candidate in 1995, contemplated endorsing Woo but decided against it after Woo refused to promise him a spot in his TV commercials. Sanders has heatedly denied this.

As a Riordan backer, Sanders now figures prominently in a mailer that features the former Rhodes scholar as a youthful football star and with his family.

Choosing Sides

The endorsement game is a time-honored pastime in American politics, though experts are divided on whether the backing of well-known or locally popular figures can help a candidate. In the Los Angeles mayor's race, however, where both candidates are unpopular with many voters, endorsements could matter a lot. Here is a look at the big names on both sides.

Mike Woo for Mayor President Clinton Gloria Molina Ted Danson *

Riordan / Turn LA Around Ronald Reagan Stan Sanders Bob Hope

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