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Riordan's Run

It's the end of an era in California politics. And with the backdrop of the war, it could be the beginning of a new era in local elections.

11:01 PM, Mar 6, 2002 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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WITH THE upset victory of businessman Bill Simon over former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan, the Republican primary in the California governor's race marks the end of an era. Not just the end of the Riordan era, but the end of an era when Republican politics seemed to follow identifiable national trends.

Upset is actually the wrong word for what happened on Tuesday. It's true that Riordan began the campaign so heavily favored that Simon was thought a mere nuisance candidate when he persisted in running. Riordan also had the backing of George W. Bush, the expertise of White House chief of staff Karl Rove, and $100 million of his own that he was reportedly ready to spend in next fall's general election against Gray Davis. (In the event, he didn't tap a cent of it.)

But for weeks now, reporters (including the Weekly Standard's) have been returning from the West Coast with reports that Simon was surging. Governor Davis, a moderate Democrat who feared the centrist Riordan, in effect joined the Simon effort, with a wide-ranging campaign of press events painting Riordan as a theocrat-in-sheep's-clothing on abortion and guns. Although it needn't have, this PR campaign drove Riordan to the left, and away from his GOP base.

That is the tried and true Democratic general election strategy--painting a candidate as "out of the mainstream," even when his opinions may be closer than those of his opponents to those the electorate reveals in polls--and its novel application in another party's primary serves the ultimate aim of garnering a general election opponent who is even more out of the mainstream.

But the real story is that the Bush administration read the situation in California badly. The Bushies reckoned that, with the state's shifting demographics, the easygoing centrist who rescued the country's first post-melting pot metropolis in the months after the Rodney King riots would be the year's model, and that the Reagan-era regulars, bowing to the obvious, would get with the program.

Spectacularly, that did not happen. What's the explanation? You could say that we're in the middle of a conservative mini-resurgence in the Republican party, and that Simon is merely following a trend started by right-wing insurgent Bret Schundler in last year's New Jersey governor's primary. (If so, given that Simon looks set to get clocked as badly as Schundler did in the general election, the Republican right will have to see the writing on the wall eventually.)

Or you could say that September 11 has meant smoother sailing for local political establishments--that pressing national matters have focused voters' attention beyond the power of television ads and get-out-the-vote efforts to distract them. Victory will now go, more often than not, to the most energetic party activists, regardless of their ideology. In this reading, national purpose means local flightiness.

Either way, Riordan will be missed. I remember a rally in a park underneath a freeway in Los Angeles a month before the 1993 mayoral race when a supporter hollered, "We love you, Dick! Don't let anyone make you defensive about your money!"

"I agree!" Riordan replied. "What do you want? Someone to run this city who's a failure?"

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.