PALM SPRINGS, Calif. - Chatting in a coffee shop with his wife and two reporters, Richard Riordan is asked if he's enjoying his unexpectedly rough run for governor of California.
"I haven't had so much fun," he says dryly, "since my dog died."
The 71-year-old Riordan, hammered from all sides by TV attack ads, has seen his big lead in the polls slip away. Suddenly, the former Los Angeles mayor is no longer a safe bet to survive next week's GOP primary election.
A social liberal, Riordan wants to fashion what he calls a "new Republican Party" in the nation's most populous state. But he's getting increasingly stiff resistance from the old party, the one that hasn't won a presidential contest here since the 1980s and that lost the governorship four years ago.
Republican veterans say Riordan has made several classic blunders: He was overconfident and took a primary victory for granted. He responded too slowly to attacks on his character. Perhaps most important, he alienated his party's conservative base, which will cast the largest number of ballots Tuesday.
"I think Dick has made some mistakes," says Dr. Tirso del Junco, who served as state party chairman when Ronald Reagan was president and Republicans were gaining in California. "He was not sensitive to his image as a Republican. You've got to win the primary, and this is what I think is hurting him."
A new statewide poll shows Riordan falling into a dead heat with Bill Simon Jr., 50, a wealthy, conservative businessman who moved from New Jersey just over a decade ago. Simon's candidacy began taking off when he aired an endorsement commercial featuring former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who was his boss in the U.S. attorney's office in the 1980s.
According to the new survey, published in yesterday's Los Angeles Times, a majority of likely primary voters reject Riordan's argument that the Republican Party needs to adopt a more moderate stance on issues such as abortion. At the same time, most of those surveyed say Riordan would be the strongest GOP contender in November.
Those results suggest that a significant number of Republican primary voters are prepared to lose the governor's race, rather than nominate someone who does not share their conservative views.
"Passion is starting to trump pragmatism," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College near Los Angeles.
An embarrassing setback
A Riordan defeat would deal an embarrassing setback to the Bush White House, which encouraged the former mayor to run. Riordan has proven appeal to Democrats and to the fast-growing Latino vote, about one-sixth of the state electorate, which turned away from Republicans because of the party's anti-immigrant image.
In 2000, George W. Bush lost California to Al Gore by 1.3 million votes. Eager to put the largest state within reach of Bush and other Republicans in national elections, all but four of California's 20 Republican congressmen have endorsed Riordan, including such staunch conservatives as Rep. Dana Rohrabacher.
"We know we have to send a signal to the people in Washington that California is a winnable state," says Jim Brulte, the Republican leader of the state Senate and a White House adviser, who is neutral in the primary.
If Riordan loses, it would be a stunning strategic success for Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. The incumbent, who faces no credible opposition in his own party but is considered vulnerable in November, has poured more than $9 million into a TV ad drive attacking Riordan.
Riordan concedes that he was surprised by the Democrat's audacious campaign to defeat him in the Republican primary. "That's got to be a first, historically," he says.
The governor's ploy is an attempt, in effect, to select his November opponent. If Davis succeeds in stopping Riordan, the Republican with seemingly the best chance to unseat him, the governor would most likely face the politically inexperienced Simon, whose views on social issues are out of the mainstream for California.
"It would be extremely difficult for Simon to win," says Pitney, a former Republican National Committee research director. Simon and the third-place contender in the primary race, Secretary of State Bill Jones, oppose abortion rights, a serious political handicap, polls show.
In a state that likes to think of itself as being on the cutting edge, Republicans have become "an endangered species," Riordan says in an interview. "And if Simon and Jones have their way, we'd be an extinct species, because they're saying our platform should be pro-life. Which means if you're pro-choice, don't be a Republican."
Riordan, who once described abortion as "murder" but favors abortion rights, agrees with strategists who say that anti-abortion candidates cannot win high-profile statewide contests in California.