I knew it was all over for Dick Riordan two weeks ago as I watched conservative Kansas Senator Sam Brownback get turned into the entree at a red-meat Republican luncheon supposedly in his honor. This poor guy Brownback, usually 10 degrees to the right of the NRA on most issues, was doing just fine entertaining and even wooing a Beverly Hills Hotel banquet room full of blue-haired ladies and other GOP stalwarts; that is, until he suggested — in an answer to a question I threw his way — that the Bush administration ought to get back to its pre–September 11 position of finding a way to ”normalize“ if not legalize millions of undocumented Mexicans who live and work in the U.S.

A gale storm of xenophobic gusts quickly swept through the room and nearly blew the slightly built and visibly shaken Republican senator off the dais. The guest of honor became the plate du jour: hamburger. The message from the floor was unmistakable: ”We don‘t want to be enlightened. We don’t want to face reality. And you can‘t make us.“

That same impulse, of course, buried poor Dick Riordan’s gubernatorial run in an avalanche of Republican rejection.

The political bottom line: California Republicans seemingly want to live in a one-party state for the next 25 years.

After Pete Wilson mobilized the Latino vote against the GOP with Proposition 187 and after Dan Lungren‘s mistaken run for governor turned the IQ-over-95 crowd against his own party in 1998, producing the greatest California Democratic sweep in 40 years, some reasonable Republicans tried to stanch the hemorrhaging. Party chairman Shawn Steel and an Orange County–based PAC of business moderates labored to drag the party back to the center.

Riordan’s candidacy could have been the catalyst for the shift. Instead, the right-wing tail of the party relentlessly flailed away at Riordan, stripping him of any real shot and eventually sinking the rest of the party with him. ”You thought the Lungren fiasco was bad for us?“ mused one top Republican moderate on election eve. ”With Bill Simon as our candidate, now we‘re staring at ’Lungren Plus.‘“ There are fears the Republicans could lose more ground in the state Legislature and that even big-time corporate funders could go irretrievably Democratic (already a number of chambers of commerce have defected from their traditional partnerships with Republicans). Predicting the outcome of the Gray Davis–Bill Simon matchup in November, the same despondent Republican said gloomily: ”It might get as close as 10 percent.“

It wasn’t just the Neanderthal wing of the party that sunk Riordan — and any hope for a Republican renaissance. Terminator Gray Davis intervened directly into the Republican primary and steamrollered the former mayor with $10 million in TV ads attacking Riordan simultaneously from the left and the right (not a difficult position for a slitherer like the governor). I had warned in this column some weeks ago that when Riordan announced he was ”tough enough“ to turn the state around, it must have set off a round of belly laughs from the governor and his enforcer Garry South — two guys who eat ”toughness“ for breakfast. Now they‘re laughing and belching.

Some eight months ago, Riordan was told by his embryonic advisory staff that Davis would go after him and how Davis would go after him. But as Riordan’s campaign leadership was taken over by the most unimaginative of Republican hacks, he was steered — unarmed — into a direct confrontation with the Battleship Gray, and the bloody result was totally predictable. Riordan also diligently drilled most of the holes in his campaign vessel. His human foibles are undeniably part of his charm, but they aren‘t the right attributes for taking on one of the most humorless, dour but brilliantly ruthless politicians in America.

Riordan had two choices before him: either run as the Best Republican, or the Best Visionary. For the first option, he would have had to run to his right and pander to the frothy fundamentalists hoping to shave off enough points to win in a low-turnout primary. The second option would have meant running a campaign infused with a McCain-like independence and integrity that would have brought waves of unlikely but enthused moderate Republican voters into the booths to swamp the hardcore loonies and scare the bejesus out of Messrs. Davis and South. In the end, he did neither. Dick did dick.

GOP chairman Steel, an old anti-war comrade of mine from college days (I kid you not), is straining to put the best face on matters. ”Davis still has a lot to be afraid of,“ he told me after assessing Riordan’s demise. ”He‘s shown he can invade our primary with his $10 million, but people still hate him, his negatives are higher than ever. And a whole lot of moderates are really pissed off at Davis’ tactics.“

Maybe. But Davis is likely licking his thin lips thinking about how much fun he‘s gonna have pounding Bill Simon into the ”extremist“ box. Check back in October to see if Simon is still wearing that trademark robotic grin he’s been flashing the last few weeks. If he is, it‘ll likely be more a grimace issuing up from some of his aching nether regions than a rejoicing coming from poll numbers.

Some of my Democratic friends are ecstatic about the ongoing crash of the California Republicans. I’m not so sanguine. The California Democratic Party has become a shell and mostly a shill — for ever narrower special interests. Two million bucks is the take the party gets just from that font of progressivism, the prison-guard lobby. Nothing would be better for the state — and even for liberals, progressives and reformers — than to have a vigorous, enlightened, moderate and viable Republican Party out there putting pressure on and competing with the Democrats.

If the best an uncontested Democratic Party can produce is four more years of Gray Davis, then all I can say is, please wake me up when it‘s all over.

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