The real winner of the Republican primary for governor looked very much at home onstage at the Democrats‘ election-night party. As well he should have.
Democratic Governor Gray Davis had just pulled off one of the great coups in political history. When he and his veteran campaign team launched their multimillion-dollar television assault on Republican favorite Dick Riordan, the superrich former L.A. mayor, in late January, Riordan held a 30-point lead over investor and political neophyte Bill Simon Jr. The offensive shattered the Riordan candidacy, which had seemed very threatening to Davis’ re-election, and handed a runaway victory to the ultraconservative Simon, who profited with a nearly 50-point turnaround in the polls.
After checking the latest election results on an aide‘s laptop in his two-story suite at the Biltmore Hotel, Davis descended to the hotel’s Crystal Ballroom to address hundreds of happy Democrats: “I have delivered on the promise of a tough-minded, big-hearted governorship.” He drew repeated chants of the Nixonesque “Four more years!” and described some of his accomplishments, then got to the real point of his speech. “Let me congratulate Bill Simon,” he said, with no apparent enthusiasm. His enthusiasm increased. “I look forward to a spirited and hard-fought campaign.”
Then the gloves came off as, in a polite yet steely tone, the governor laid out the Simon candidacy in stark terms. “I am a pragmatic problem solver,” said Davis. “Bill Simon is a true-blue, think-tank conservative. While I respect his sincerity, I believe he is out of step with Californians. We need to move California forward, not backward, and certainly not to the right.”
How would Simon move California to the right? Davis ticked off point after point, the very same points that pollster Paul Maslin cited in less decorous fashion when the Weekly ran into the jubilant Davis political-consulting team before the governor‘s speech.
“Well, you guys have just won the Super Bowl,” the Weekly gibed. “Are you off to Disneyland?”
“No, no, no, can’t you get it straight, the Super Bowl is in November,” chorused Maslin and Washington-based media consultants David Doak and Tom O‘Donnell.
So what’s next? “Simon is next,” said Maslin. “He is pro-life, pro-gun, pro-voucher, pro-privatization and pro-deregulation. That covers almost every issue affecting Californians.”
“When the time is right,” said Doak, “we will put Simon in a box, as we put Riordan in a box, and open fire.”
What happened to Riordan? “Gray Davis happened to Riordan,” said O‘Donnell.
“The governor is a very, very smart politician,” his partner Doak continued. “Gray realized that Riordan figured that when you have the president getting you in the race, you don’t have to run a primary campaign and can just start running the general. Gray decided he wouldn‘t let that happen.
”We first put Riordan in the box on abortion,“ noted Doak. ”He could either explain why he changed his position, and alienate the core Republican voter, or not answer and start losing the moderates. He did both.“
”The whole premise of the Riordan candidacy was a wrong,“ said Maslin. ”Vote for me in a Republican primary because I can win in the fall.“
Doak concurred: ”That’s not why people vote in primaries. Voting is the ultimate political statement people make about themselves.“
”So our flip-flop ads,“ said O‘Donnell, ”on abortion and the death penalty turned Riordan’s ‘winnability’ argument into ‘Sell out your principles.’“
”Riordan thought there would be just the one ad on abortion,“ noted Doak, referring to the first Davis attack ad, which scored the avowedly pro-choice Riordan for giving money to anti-abortion groups. ”We held off on the ‘In His Own Words’ spot (a devastating ad in which the candidate calls abortion ‘murder’ in a 1991 cable-TV interview) and gave him time to twist.“
The governor‘s consultants described their research, which showed that the early flight of ads affected Riordan’s standing but that there was still considerable ”push-back“ from voters, especially in the L.A. market. ”People defended him,“ said Maslin.
”But ‘In His Own Words’ cracked him, even in L.A.,“ said Doak. ”After that, they [primary voters] accepted what we said and what Simon said about him.“
And Riordan‘s own credibility in counterattack was sharply diminished.
After Davis’ speech, his consultants repaired to the governor‘s suite upstairs, while the Gatsby-esque Davis and wife Sharon disappeared into the night. Davis consigliere Garry South, tired and happy after vanquishing his old bete noire Riordan, also called it a night, but his colleagues wanted to check out their next adversary, Simon.
In his customary drape-and-cloak dark suit, the freshly minted Republican nominee looked earnest and a bit nervous on the large-screen TV. ”Jesus, this is some vague stuff,“ exclaimed O’Donnell as the speech dragged on.
”That‘s his fourth close,“ marveled Maslin, ”and he still hasn’t mentioned Gray. Finish the speech!“
As if on cue, a moment later Simon launched into a rather tepid denunciation of Davis for ”failing to plan.“ The consultants looked satisfied.
”Simon‘s gotten a lot better since he started last year,“ noted Doak. ”Anybody who can improve as much as he has can keep improving.“
”We may have opened the door, but he had to walk through it,“ Maslin pointed out. It all sounded like somewhat faint but nonetheless real praise.
”We’re going to take Simon very seriously,“ declared O‘Donnell. That didn’t sound like a compliment.