Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan sounded more than ever like a candidate for governor Thursday as he laid out plans to take a summer tour of California to learn about "agriculture, water, fishing" and other issues.
With three days left as mayor, Riordan said he planned to visit Fresno, Bakersfield, Sacramento, San Francisco and other points beyond the borders of Los Angeles next month to "get the pulse of the state." By early fall, Riordan said, he would have "some idea of whether I could do the job of governor well enough to try to undertake it."
The Republican mayor also said for the first time that a White House political team had not only urged him to run, but also offered to help him raise money for a campaign that could cost $50 million or more.
"I have been very flattered with the attitude of the White House," Riordan said in a radio interview.
Riordan's public remarks about White House support have irked both declared GOP candidates for governor, California Secretary of State Bill Jones and Los Angeles investment banker William E. Simon Jr.
And some California GOP strategists have warned that White House intervention in a primary could undermine grass-roots support for Riordan by making him seem like a boss-anointed candidate.
But it is in large part the Bush team's encouragement that has led the 71-year-old mayor to the brink of launching a state campaign.
In private, close associates say, Riordan has indicated that he already has decided to run. "He is letting it be known that he is going to do this," a source close to Riordan said Thursday.
Riordan has asked Simon to meet with him this week to talk about the governor's race, stirring rumors that the mayor might ask him to drop out. But Simon, a multimillionaire who is seeking public office for the first time, has already signaled that he intends to stay in the race. His chief strategist, Sal Russo, said it was largely Riordan, a longtime friend of Simon's, who had persuaded Simon to run in the first place.
On Thursday, Riordan made his most expansive public remarks to date on the governor's race in a series of radio interviews to mark the end of his eight years as mayor.
On his final KFWB radio call-in show, Riordan said he has hired a mayoral spokeswoman, Carolina Guevara, as press secretary for his California tour and perhaps beyond. Guevara, a Los Angeles resident from Chicago, will also serve as his guide to the rest of the state.
"I'm going to travel around the state to strange areas, and I want somebody who knows those areas who can help me talk to people, learn issues about what they need, whether it's in agriculture, water, fishing, things like that--and I think she could help me on that," he said.
His reference to "strange areas" of California prompted his host, Jack Popejoy, to remind Riordan he once offended the people of Bakersfield by calling their city "boring."
"There goes the Bakersfield vote," Popejoy joked.
Riordan would not be the first big-city mayor to trip on the minefields of a statewide race. Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch famously wounded his 1982 campaign for governor of New York by suggesting that upstate residents drive 20 miles in a pickup truck to buy gingham dresses and Sears, Roebuck suits.
Riordan's competitors have an early advantage in grasping the concerns of voters outside Los Angeles. Jones is running his third statewide campaign. ("When Riordan talks about taking a tour of the state, obviously he doesn't know the state and he doesn't know the issues," said Jones campaign manager Robert C. Lapsley.) And Simon has been campaigning for weeks in remote corners of California. At stops in Chico and Eureka on Wednesday, Simon deplored the suckerfish protection measures that have enraged farmers in the Klamath Basin.
On Riordan's radio show, the mayor recalled that a crowd in San Francisco once booed him for calling their city "Frisco." As Riordan talked about a more recent trip there for an AIDS bicycle ride, the mayor--for the second time in a week--said "Los Angeles" when he seemed to mean "California."
"I learned that people think somewhat differently up there, but we all have the same needs," Riordan said. "We all have the needs of a safer Los Angeles, of a reliable supply of energy, of better transportation, better housing, and education, of course, the No. 1 issue."
Riordan declined an invitation to rate Davis's handling of the energy crisis. "It would be unfair of me to criticize Gov. Davis," he said. "Churchill said any idiot can come up with a perfect plan for winning a war, as long as they're not responsible for waging it. I think Gov. Davis is the one waging the war now. And I should not be throwing darts at him at this time."
Last week, Riordan was less circumspect when reporters at an East Los Angeles park asked him to evaluate how Davis had dealt with energy.
"It's shown some people that he lacks some leadership qualities," Riordan said then.
In the meantime, Riordan foes have seized on Tuesday's results in the New Jersey governor's race to question the benefits of White House support in GOP primaries. In that contest, conservative underdog Brett Schundler won a landslide victory over former Rep. Bob Franks, the favored candidate of the GOP establishment.
"There should be no shock here," Simon's strategists said in a memo dispatched to political observers. "History is replete with 'anointed' candidates of a political establishment losing their primaries against candidates who better relate to and connect with voters."
Stepping up the sniping at Riordan, the memo continued, "The next time you hear about a candidate that is the sure-fire winner as anointed by the establishment and is a big-city liberal mayor, check the history books. Who's next?"
Times staff writer Mark Z. Barabak contributed to this story.