The not-so-hidden author of this year’s Republican gubernatorial primary was his generally cool, collected self as he discussed the race. We are talking here, of course, about Gray Davis, the incumbent Democrat.

Political neophyte Bill Simon Jr. had just pulled ahead of heavily favored former Los Angeles Mayor Dick Riordan in private polls. Which, as you can imagine, interested Davis to no end.

”Riordan could still come back,“ Davis told the Weekly. ”It‘s not clear to me that Simon, who is mostly unknown, has a lot to hold him up when Riordan goes negative. Of course, Riordan is mostly unknown outside of L.A.“ Except for what Davis has told voters about him. ”There is that,“ the governor noted. ”Either one is fine with me,“ he said. ”I feel good about this.“

Stunning most observers, Davis has shellacked Riordan for the past month with millions in TV attack ads on a variety of issues — abortion, death penalty, crime, energy — all pushing the meta-theme that the super-rich former leveraged-buyout artist turned late-in-life pol is unsteady and untrustworthy. And Democratic sources confirm that there are ”under the radar“ efforts against Riordan, including round-the-clock cable-TV buys hitting Riordan’s contradictory statements on the death penalty in conservative areas, as well as rumored phone-bank and direct-mail operations.

Did Davis set out to defeat Riordan in his own primary? ”No,“ said the governor. ”As you know, I simply decided that the free ride he was having at my expense was over and it was time for him to realize what he was embarked upon.“ Democratic strategists confirm that their intention was to bloody up Riordan for the general election and, in the process, eliminate his alarming support among some liberals and independents who had backed Davis. But when they discovered, to their delight, that Riordan was slow and inept in his response, they poured on the heat, in effect creating the Bill Simon candidacy.

”If he had money, [Secretary of State Bill] Jones could do what I did in 1998,“ said Davis, referring to how he trumped two battling super-rich candidates with his superior experience. ”But,“ pronouncing the epitaph on Jones‘ decadeslong career, ”he doesn’t have money.“

Exit Mr. Jones, enter Mr. Simon. Simon is often derided by insiders as Sacramento consultant Sal Russo‘s $50,000-a-month folly. But his vast improvement as a candidate was on display over the weekend before the Marin County Republican Women’s Forum.

Gone are the robotic hand gestures and stiff Christian-flavored rhetoric, replaced by a fluid and increasingly confident discussion of the state‘s growing needs in transportation and education.

With fresh confidence and stature in the polls comes star quality, at least by association with Time magazine’s Man of the Year, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani stumped the state by Gulfstream jet with his former U.S. Attorney‘s Office assistant on Monday. With the theme music from Top Gun blaring as the Simon jet taxied up, the waiting crowd of Republican activists on the tarmac at McClellan Air Force Base outside Sacramento went mildly nuts as only Republicans seem to do, exploding in cheers as the hero of 911 New York walked off the plane, followed by the rising candidate for governor of California. Knowing he was only the opening act on this day, Simon wisely gave a brief introduction of Giuliani, who, as ”the expert witness,“ gave a rousing appraisal of his former assistant’s sterling qualities. Adding to the sense of Simon momentum was the seemingly odd tableau of state prison-guards chief and Davis backer Don Novey, whose union spent $2 million to elect the governor in 1998, schmoozing with Simon campaign chief Sal Russo, who told Novey that right-wing columnist ”Bob Novak says his sources all say Riordan is dead meat.“

Off in the crowd, the Weekly asked Giuliani‘s girlfriend, New York socialite Judith Nathan, how well she knew the candidate. Not at all well, she averred, ”But Rudy thinks the world of Bill.“ At least on this day, and that was all that mattered.

The contrast between Simon’s air-base rally and Riordan‘s event earlier that day outside the state Capitol was stark. It was Riordan’s first time back in Sacramento since his disastrous bus tour, and he was there — just eight days before a Republican primary — to convince people that he really is for the death penalty. Using a quote from the L.A. Business Journal (which Riordan first called a misquote only to say Monday that ”I might have said it“), Davis has launched devastating attacks on Riordan‘s bona fides as a death-penalty supporter. The tone was defensive, and the former mayor, who is now maintaining the lightest public schedule of the candidates, did not appear fresh.

Unlike the Simon rally, the event was filled with suits rather than activists, as was Riordan’s sole event of Sunday, a belated defense of his record with the L.A. Department of Water and Power. Despite a blast fax to L.A. supporters, few if any were in attendance.

Simon‘s surge continued Monday night in San Francisco with a Giuliani press conference and private fund-raiser at the elegant Fairmont Hotel.

Explaining why he does not support Riordan, whose moderate Republican views seem more in line with his own, Giuliani said, ”September 11 showed that you can’t predict what will happen. That‘s why character and strength count most, and that’s what Bill has.“

Star power counts, too, as the Weekly discovered at the private Simon reception for big contributors. Showing that Simon is the trendy candidate at perhaps just the right moment, several guests acknowledged being a little unclear about Simon and the race in general. But there was no lack of clarity about Simon‘s former boss, who lined up for photo after photo in front of, fittingly, a painting of an overflowing California cornucopia, flanked by flags.

Vowing not to infuse his primary campaign with personal money, even as Simon pumps millions into his late-breaking drive, Riordan just got his biggest donation yet, $500,000, from American Sterling Corp., a Kansas City–based finance and insurance firm, and threw it immediately into an increased media buy that helped briefly to put Riordan ahead. Oddly, Democratic leaders say they have no record of the firm playing a major campaign-finance role before, and Riordan campaign chief Ron Hartwig said that CEO Lawrence Dodge, who met with Riordan and Hartwig three weeks ago at his own request, is neither a Riordan friend nor someone who has had past dealings with the candidate. Hartwig denies that any outside interests, such as the Bush White House, played a role in setting up the meeting or in soliciting the massive contribution, which Hartwig said came as ”a very pleasant surprise“ unsolicited by the campaign.

Riordan is in very deep trouble. While, according to private tracking polls, he took a slight lead over the weekend, boosted by his sudden advertising effort, his neophyte challenger and erstwhile friend regained a slight lead early this week. Despite the Davis-predicted Riordan attacks on Simon, Simon’s negatives have been slow to rise.

Ominously for Riordan, his renewed strength came almost entirely in the L.A. market. Seventy percent of the undecideds reside elsewhere, and Simon is leading everywhere in California besides L.A. The highest-propensity voters, hardcore conservatives and people 50 and older, seem to have turned against Riordan.

And, though Riordan has the most endorsements, Simon has most of the Republican grassroots groups to help get voters to the polls. Instead of running against Davis, as he inexplicably keeps trying to do, Riordan must knock down Simon everywhere if he is to survive. To echo his earlier slogan, will he be ”tough enough“ to do that?

LA Weekly