There was good news for Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley last week, but probably not the kind he expected at this late stage of his run to win the Republican primary of the California attorney general's race on June 8.

Something of a favorite among political wizards and editorial boards, Cooley's been having a hard time convincing real-life Republicans that they should vote for him — in a Survey USA poll released on May 10, Cooley was losing by seven percentage points to state Sen. Tom Harman of Huntington Beach, with 36 percent of likely voters undecided. It was startling news for the L.A. County prosecutor, who works in the state's largest TV and radio market, a fact that gives him solid name recognition in voter-rich Southern California. He has grabbed major headlines with his high-profile attempts to regulate medical marijuana and to throw film director Roman Polanski in jail for statutory rape in 1977.

“We're in a tight race,” concedes Cooley campaign consultant Kevin Spillane.

A new Survey USA poll, however, suggests that Cooley has caught up, although he's still not the clear front-runner. That poll shows 29 percent of likely Republican voters backing Cooley, 28 percent supporting Harman and a sizable 29 percent undecided with just days to go. Former Chapman University Law School dean John Eastman, another Orange County Republican, lags behind with 14 percent of likely voters.

Cooley's real challenge since entering the race for attorney general early this year is the fact that he is a moderate Republican. Popular in a county that typically chews up and spits out its top prosecutors after just a few years, Cooley is serving his third term and is the longest-surviving L.A. County D.A. since Buron Fitts left office in 1940.

He faces conservatives in Harman and Eastman, both of whom have consistently banged him over the head for his handling of “three strikes” law offenders. Cooley believes prosecutors should only seek a third strike — and thus put a repeat felon in prison for 25 years to life — if it involves a violent or serious felony crime.

Essentially, if a two-time felon gets arrested for stealing pizza or socks, Cooley doesn't go after a third strike. His practice has earned him the reputation of pragmatic prosecutor by the San Francisco Chronicle and other newspapers.

But Cooley's rivals and critics have gained inroads by pointing to his practice as evidence that he's out of step with conservative, law-and-order Republicans, an important voting bloc during the primary season. Harman's campaign strategist Tim Rosales says in a press release that Cooley is a “liberal L.A. D.A.,” with an “absolute commitment to weakening three strikes.”

And in a Republican primary, says Dan Schnur, a Republican strategist now the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, “it's a charge that packs a pretty decent wallop.”

As a result, Cooley is facing one of the most difficult campaign races of his political career. Entering office in 2000 after defeating incumbent Gil Garcetti, Cooley has become a media fixture thanks to such highly publicized cases as the murder trials of music producer Phil Spector and actor Robert Blake. But the county's high-profile crimes are easy to bungle, and the public loves to blame the top prosecutor when that happens. Garcetti was widely criticized for his office's handling of the O.J. Simpson murder trial, which led to his downfall and Cooley's rise.

In the campaign for California attorney general — considered a “down-ticket” and an underpublicized race that is generally not closely watched by voters — Cooley would at first appear to have an advantage over lesser-known rivals Harman and Eastman.

“L.A. County is part of the L.A. media market,” says Democratic strategist Darry Sragow, noting its reach includes L.A. and Orange counties and western parts of San Bernardino and Riverside counties, with the nearby markets of Santa Barbara, Palm Springs and San Diego also watching L.A. news. “That market reaches about 45 percent of the Republican vote in California,” Sragow says. “And being the D.A., it tells voters you fight crime.”

Cooley, if he wins the GOP primary next week, is widely expected to reach out to California's huge population of moderate voters in November, giving the Democratic nominee — also to be chosen next week — a run for his or her money. (The Survey USA poll shows Democratic San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris leading Facebook executive Chris Kelly by eight percentage points, with former Los Angeles city attorney Rocky Delgadillo just behind Kelly.)

But Cooley faces the same problem — being a moderate Republican — that led in part to former mayor Richard Riordan's walloping by conservative Bill Simon in the 2002 battle for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in California. “The most conservative or most liberal candidate has a built-in advantage,” says Schnur. That's because primaries tend to be ignored by all but the most interested and invested voters — often the most liberal and most conservative wings of the two parties. When turnout swells, the math changes: People who are less hard-core about their party show up to vote, and moderate candidates have a better chance of being elected.

No surprise, then, that Harman and Eastman are relying on voter disinterest to keep the middle-of-the-roaders home on primary day.

Harman's campaign has somewhat humorously described Cooley as being “further to the left than the 9th Circuit of Appeals” — a wild slam that only a deeply conservative voter would probably buy into. A Harman press release states, “Cooley and his policies enable these career criminals to commit additional heinous crimes and create more innocent victims.”

“Harman has been really working it,” says Bill Carrick, a longtime political consultant who's working on Delgadillo's low-key attorney-general campaign in the Democratic primary. “He's been very active in Orange County politics, and he's very conservative.”

But Carrick says Eastman, a regular TV and radio pundit who won endorsements from popular conservative radio talk-show hosts Laura Ingraham and Dennis Prager, is the true darling of conservative Republicans. “Eastman is very much a purist on legal issues,” says Carrick, “and he may seem like a good match for people” in the primary.

Eastman says Cooley's three-strikes position is like “refusing to use the tax code to put Al Capone away for a very long time, or refusing to put San Diego murderer-rapist John Gardner away for a 25-to-life sentence if he had been caught committing a nonviolent third offense after his first two, violent felonies.”

Carrick sees Cooley as having tried to stay away from Harman and Eastman's courting of conservative Republicans, hoping the two men will split that vote, allowing Cooley to win the rest of the Republicans.

In the meantime, Spillane, the consultant for Cooley, says Harman and Eastman are “outright lying” about his boss's three-strikes record. “It's one of the dirtiest campaigns we've seen in a Republican primary,” complains Spillane. Schnur says that's not necessarily the case, but agrees it has been “very hard-hitting.”

Sragow suggests that Republican voters may decide Harman and Eastman are full of hot air, and end up siding with the longtime D.A. Of the three-strikes attacks on Cooley, he says, “The voters may just say to themselves, 'He's the D.A., he knows what he's doing.'”

That familiarity might be Cooley's real strength next week. As Schnur notes, “A lot of voters go to the polls and choose the candidate they know of.”

And working for 10 years in the second-largest media market in the nation, Steve Cooley — both by his face and by his name — is widely known. Even so, the political pros are unwilling to predict whether he or one of his rivals will win the GOP nomination on Tuesday.

Contact Patrick Range McDonald at pmcdonald@laweekly.com.

LA Weekly