Struggling to regain his footing in a race long seen as his to lose, gubernatorial candidate Richard Riordan found himself Tuesday trying to convince supporters he finds it exciting that his solid lead in the Republican primary has withered into a dead heat.
Coursing across Southern California, territory that his backers presumed would be securely in his column by now, he pounded his chief rival, Pacific Palisades businessman Bill Simon Jr., and cast himself as a more loyal Republican. As much as anything else, however, he fought to portray himself as optimistic that he will defeat Simon.
A Times poll published Tuesday found Riordan and Simon in a tie, one week before Tuesday’s primary. Once tied with Gov. Gray Davis in a hypothetical November matchup, Riordan now trails the Democratic incumbent.
To regain its edge, Riordan’s campaign was producing new anti-Simon television spots Tuesday and making last-minute changes to the candidate’s schedule, staging a pep rally at the Riordan-owned Original Pantry restaurant in downtown Los Angeles.
Appearing upbeat, the former Los Angeles mayor cast his reversal of fortune in a favorable light.
“It’s getting close, which makes it exciting,” Riordan said. “We’ll have a heck of a week. We’ll have a lot of fun. But in the end, people are going to know that Gray Davis fears Dick Riordan more than any Republican, so we’re going to beat him.”
But friends and advisors to Riordan suggested that beneath the optimism there was deep unease within his campaign about the state of the race.
The candidate and his wife, Nancy Daly Riordan, “thought it would be a cakewalk,” but “it hasn’t turned out that way,” said their close friend Eli Broad.
“You can’t assume anything anymore,” Broad said.
Some key Riordan supporters have privately urged the wealthy candidate to tap his personal fortune to buy more television ads. Riordan has refused; his campaign has argued that contributions could dry up if donors assume he is financing his own campaign.
Strategically, Riordan has settled on a two-pronged approach for the final stretch.
One part is a new effort to appeal to conservative voters--the group most apt to turn out in a GOP primary. At stops in Fontana, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara on Tuesday, he touted his support for tax cuts and the death penalty--touchstone Republican issues.
The other part is a full-bore attack on Simon. Standing beneath a “Steaks & Chops” sign in his restaurant, Riordan said it was “unbelievable” that Simon had attacked his GOP credentials.
“The shirt I’m wearing has been a Republican longer than Bill Simon,” Riordan said.
Simon, formerly an independent, first registered as a Republican in 1992, Riordan said. Riordan pointed to a blown-up photocopy of Simon’s 1984 voter registration card. Riordan read the line next to a box checked by Simon on the card: “I do not wish to enroll in any political party.”
He tried to rally Republicans to his side by attributing Simon’s rise in the polls to the $8-million barrage of TV ads that Davis has run against Riordan. The incumbent, Riordan said, is essentially trying to pick his GOP opponent.
“We cannot let Gray Davis kidnap the Republican primary,” Riordan said.
Outside the restaurant, the governor’s pit-bull strategist, Garry South, distributed an unflattering news story about Riordan to reporters. To avoid confrontation, Riordan’s bodyguard and aides escorted the candidate through the back door of the restaurant.
For his part, Simon stepped up his attacks on Riordan’s loyalty to the GOP. He released a statement hammering Riordan for supporting a federal tax hike under President Bill Clinton. He also renewed his broader attack on Riordan for supporting a host of Democrats over the years.
Responding to the Riordan criticism, Simon consultant Jeff Flint said it was “way too late for Dick Riordan to try to refurbish his Republican credentials.”
“It’s clear the voters have decided Dick Riordan is a liberal, and Bill Simon is a conservative Republican, and that’s why Bill Simon is surging in all the polls,” Flint said.
Simon campaigned Monday in Oakland and the Central Valley. In Oakland’s Chinatown, he darted into dim sum restaurants and pastry shops, walking past rows of ducks and stacked fruit. He shook hands with fry cooks, waitresses and bewildered-looking restaurant customers. Passersby stopped to gawk, many asking, “Who’s he?”
Simon invoked the names of fellow Republicans from Ronald Reagan to Rudolph Giuliani, his showcase supporter.
“How’s business?” Simon asked a restaurant owner. “Well, I’m behind the small businessman. Do you want less taxes? I’m the only candidate who plans to balance the budget without raising taxes.”
In most encounters, Simon--a first-time candidate--appeared stiff and tried for one-liners. When he reached to shake hands with one woman, she asked: “Are you leaving?”
“No, I’m just going where they tell me,” he replied. “I’m just a candidate. I do what I’m told.”
A supporter pointed out that there were three banks on every Chinatown corner. “Chinese people, we like to save our money,” he said.
“Not just gambling?” Simon asked.
The supporter laughed nervously and Simon slapped him on the back, good-old-boy style.
“I know, I know,” Simon said.
The third Republican candidate, Secretary of State Bill Jones, campaigned Tuesday in San Diego, where he renewed his own attacks against Riordan. But with only $300,000 worth of TV spots airing in the campaign’s final week, his message is being largely drowned out by roughly quadruple the ad exposure for Riordan, Simon and Davis--a crucial factor in a state as large as California.
Riordan got some outside help Tuesday from a moderate Republican group that launched a TV spot in Sacramento attacking Simon over his family’s involvement in a failed savings and loan.
Simon sat on the board of Western Federal Savings & Loan, but says he was monitoring his family’s investment, not managing the thrift. He blames its collapse in the early 1990s--which cost taxpayers $92 million and his family’s investment firm another $40 million--on a premature takeover by federal regulators.
But the ad suggests that Simon’s negligence was to blame and accuses the candidate of being “too careless with your money.”
The 15-second spot, airing only in Sacramento at this point, was placed by the Republican Leadership Council, a Washington group that seeks to elect fiscally conservative, socially moderate Republicans.
“We feel Mr. Simon is not the best candidate for the Republican Party in California to grow and thrive,” said Allen Raymond, executive director of the group.
As for Riordan, although he is never mentioned in the spot, “I think he has the kind of record that would really be good for the Republican Party in California,” Raymond said. “Also, we think he is the best candidate to challenge and defeat Gov. Davis in the fall.”
Times staff writers Mark Z. Barabak and John Glionna contributed to this report.