There are two ways you can look at the defection of four key Republicans from former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan's exploratory gubernatorial campaign.
One is that Riordan, 71, transcends petty partisan politics, as do most California voters. The pro-choice Riordan is exactly the kind of Republican who could beat Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, largely because he cares more about results than ideology. As Riordan told a group of Republican women this month, his campaign would be "a bridge between the GOP and rest of California voters, particularly women.''
The other way is to figure that Riordan is a train wreck of a candidate who has lost four top advisers before he even announced that he is running. You could consider him a political embodiment of the Peter Principle, which says that people rise to their level of incompetence, then stay there. Except that in politics, you don't get to stay in elective office. You lose.
Look at the body count. First, veteran political consultant Dan Schnur left the campaign.
Then strategist Arnold Steinberg, who has advised Riordan in the past, and deputy director Fiona Hutton exited. Speechwriter Bill Whalen is "on a break'' from the campaign. At the same time, a number of Democrats have a raised profile in the campaign coterie -- namely unpaid consultants Clint Reilly, Patrick Caddell and Riordan's wife Nancy Daly.
Observers wonder if Riordan, the Republican, is now planning to run to the left of Davis. Said one insider who did not want to be named, "He acts like the Republican party doesn't exist.''
The campaign has been working to make a virtue of Riordan's bipartisan approach. Political director Kevin Spillane, a Republican, noted, "Richard Riordan is not your typical Republican, and that is exactly why he can be elected governor of California.''
Sounds good, but Riordan's more than bipartisan, he's all over the map -- and highly inconsistent. Last year, he gave $12,500 to Davis campaign coffers. This year, he is getting ready to challenge Davis.
Asked why Riordan is a Republican, Spillane answered, "He's pro-business. He supports public safety. He's a government reformer.'' Then, why has Riordan contributed to some of the most anti-business, soft-on-crime Democrats in California, such as Sen. Barbara Boxer and Rep. Maxine Waters and state Senate President John Burton's Senate Majority Fund?
Those contributions suggest more than that Riordan isn't a good Republican, they suggest he has no center, no core values.
To which Spillane responded, "What is Gray Davis' core?''
The pragmatist might argue that Riordan needs no core, not with the
strong poll numbers he enjoys. A Field Poll conducted before the attack showed Riordan beating Davis 47 percent to 43 percent, while Davis commanded a 12-point lead over Jones and 19 points over Simon. Team Riordan is banking on Republicans being so desperate to win the governor's seat that they'll go with the candidate who is a clear winner.
This is where questions about Riordan's discipline are key. The Davis campaign is fat with other people's money and willing to use it to pound the GOP nominee. If Riordan doesn't have a consistent and strong message, he's roadkill. If he makes more verbal gaffes, he's roadkill.
(As in last month's statement: "I'd be a dirty, rotten, lousy rat if I turned my back on the people who've given me several million dollars.'')
Said Spillane: "Bill Jones and Bill Simon wish they had the problems of the Riordan campaign. They would trade places with us any day of the week.'' True, when it comes to his campaign coffers and poll ratings. But I don't think they'd want to trade his record on giving money to Davis. And I don't think they'd want to defend against his gaffes.