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See Riordan Run

Former California Governor Jerry Brown, who invented Gray Davis, has a great saying about politics: “A little vagueness goes a long way in this business.” That‘s something that former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, the latest aspirant for the state’s highest office, seems to have taken very much to heart.

Here‘s Riordan, who has offered next to nothing on California’s epic energy crisis, its ballooning budget crisis or any other pressing issue of the time, actually running ahead of the Democratic incumbent. The leveraged buyout artist--turned--super-rich ex-mayor and European summer cyclist has managed to get through more than five months of high-profile “exploration” without saying much of anything about the new job he wants. But, even though he leads Davis by three points in the Field Poll and eight points in a private poll, that will change.

Riordan is declaring his candidacy on November 6 at a Beverly Hills fund-raising dinner. It remains to be seen if he and his fledgling campaign are ready for the big stage.

In the past few weeks, four Republican operatives have left Riordan‘s team. The departed include Dan Schnur, the director of his campaign committee and Pete Wilson’s communications director; Fiona Hutton, his deputy director; Arnold Steinberg, longtime pollster and strategist; and Bill Whelan, top speechwriter. Several big-name Democratic operatives are onboard, leading to wild charges from primary opponents Bill Jones and Bill Simon, both of whom trail badly. Some say that Riordan‘s wife, Nancy Daly, the former first lady of Warner Bros., is really in charge and that Riordan is really a Democrat in disguise.

Riordan is taking on Davis at a particularly weak moment in the governor’s reign. Top Democrats say his fund-raising has fallen off. The energy situation and the state budget -- once again intertwined -- are big messes. Public Utilities Commission chief Loretta Lynch and Power Authority chairman David Freeman are at loggerheads. Davis senior adviser Nancy McFadden, a former top Al Gore aide who helps run the Governor‘s Office and works on energy issues, has been rumored for some time to be leaving in a few months, though a Davis spokesman denies it.

Even the Bush administration is coming through for Riordan. Riordan, Jones and Simon were to speak at last weekend’s state Republican convention, but sources say that Gerald Parsky, the Los Angeles billionaire who chaired the Bush campaign in California and is the White House designee to oversee the fractious state party, intervened to stop the speeches. Why? Because Jones was going to trash Riordan before the assembled faithful as a closet Democrat, using material he rolled out last week at a Sacramento Press Club appearance showing that Riordan has given far more money to Democrats than to Republicans.

It was a good break for Riordan, who is still struggling with the latest iteration of his own organization. It‘s said by many observers that his campaign manager, when one is in place, will be guided by a council of seasoned political advisers, including former Kathleen Brown campaign manager Clint Reilly, Jimmy Carter pollster--turned-- West Wing producer Pat Caddell, and Michael Dukakis campaign manager-- turned--USC law professor Susan Estrich.

GOP media consultant Don Sipple, who left the Bob Dole campaign in the midst of charges that he had beaten his ex-wives and, before that, having upset Latinos with his pro--Proposition 187 work for Pete Wilson, is on board for Riordan, sources say, at the behest of Orange County real estate billionaire Donald Bren.

He and Reilly, a controversial former Democratic consultant and losing 1999 San Francisco mayoral candidate, are the two dominant minds in the Riordan operation. Reilly, who ran Riordan’s 1993 mayoral campaign, is said by a Riordan friend to have “a Svengali hold” on the former mayor and his wife.

Sacramento consultant Kevin Spillane, an early Riordan booster who was a top aide to Silicon Valley moderate Tom Campbell, is the campaign‘s political director. Current chairman Rick Hernandez, a businessman and former L.A. police commissioner, is said to have been elbowed aside by Reilly. The campaign manager hasn’t been announced, but the leading choice is said to be Ron Hartwig, an executive of the Hill & Knowlton public-relations firm, a relative unknown in statewide political circles who gets along well with the Riordans. Other top aides include former mayoral aide Carolina Guevara and two conservatives, new Riordan policy director Joel Fox, former head of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, and research director Joe Rodota, a former top Wilson aide known as “Dr. Death” for his penchant for punishing opposition research.

Longtime state Democratic Party honcho Bob Mulholland turns even more waspish than usual in describing Riordan‘s Democratic advisers: “Reilly ran Kathleen Brown’s campaign into the ground; Caddell is a professional anti-Democrat, the guy who came up with ”New Coke“; Estrich told Michael Dukakis the flag wasn‘t an issue. Now they’re crowding the bridge of the Titanic.”

Spillane, a Republican looking at a primary election, tends to minimize the roles of the name Democrats. In fact, he says, they will be working independently as “Democrats for Riordan,” along with Disney executive John Cook and others.

Caddell is well aware that he is controversial and also talks down his role, saying he goes to meetings at Riordan‘s house, but so do others. “I don’t know what I‘ll do,” he says. “But between the incessant fund-raising and sheer incompetence of Davis -- and Garry South’s thuggery -- I have to help Dick.”

South, Davis‘ chief political adviser, goes way back with Riordan. The former Washington real estate lobbyist came to California to work as press secretary for Riordan’s main 1993 opponent, Mike Woo, and grew to detest the eventual winner. Signing on with Davis, again without a chief of staff, after Woo‘s defeat, South became known in political circles as a relentlessly tuff-talk spinner on the future governor’s behalf. This year he has annoyed many, including powerful Hollywood figures, with what are viewed as mean-spirited attacks on Davis critics, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had the temerity to ponder a run for the governorship. Schwarzenegger gave Riordan $50,000 on October 19, a day on which Riordan raised a total of $250,000.

Riordan‘s name ID, amiable manner, credible record as mayor, business success, personal wealth and fund-raising ability all make him a strong contender. And, as Spillane points out, his moderation on social issues will make it tough for Davis to pigeonhole him as he did right-winger Dan Lungren three years ago.

But though the opportunity is certainly there for him, it’s not clear that Riordan is up to the challenge of advancing beyond L.A. politics. Key Democrats chortle about his recent tour of a fiberglass plant in Redding -- a town in Northern California, which the former mayor likes to call “upstate California” (as in “upstate New York”) -- after which the man who would be governor stepped before the microphones and averred as how fiber optics are key to the future.

Some associates wonder if Riordan has the intellectual focus to contest Davis, who, for all his shortcomings, is very disciplined. “This could be a train wreck,” says one. “He doesn‘t have Bill Wardlaw [the investment banker consigliere who broke with Riordan over the recent mayor’s race] to backstop him,” says another. “He doesn‘t have all the people from the Mayor’s Office who wrote the memos. And he won‘t be dealing with a press corps that would let him be absent for 44 days of cancer treatments without reporting what was going on.”