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LOCAL ELECTIONS / L.A. MAYOR : Woo Courts Top Democrats as Riordan Attacks Rival on Crime


Michael Woo posed side by side with Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), showing off an endorsement by one of California's most prominent Democrats. Richard Riordan stood outside the Hollywood police station, assailing Woo's record on crime.

On Friday, the contrasting strategies of the Los Angeles mayor's race came into sharp focus. In a battle for the city's predominantly Democratic electorate, Woo has begun a drive to win the endorsements of leading Democrats as he continues to remind voters that Riordan is a Reagan-backed rich Republican with links to anti-abortion groups and other right-wing organizations.

Riordan, on the other hand, has been pounding away at his message that this officially nonpartisan race is about issues, not politics, and that people's concerns about crime and the economy will transcend party loyalty.

"The issues in the city are safety and jobs, safety and jobs, safety and jobs," Riordan said at a news conference outside the Hollywood division of the Los Angeles Police Department.

He went on to cite rising crime statistics in Hollywood over the past eight years, the period Woo represented the area on the City Council. The numbers reflected a sharp rise in homicide and other major crimes.

It was not the first time Riordan has sought to exploit voter discontent with Woo in Hollywood, and he made sure that his audience included some of the councilman's most vocal critics. But it was one of Riordan's more effective appearances.

Turning to the group of about 20 residents who had been applauding his attacks on Woo, he deftly countered the councilman's appeal to party loyalty. "How many of you are Democrats?" he asked. Most raised their hands.

"Not a dumb move on Riordan's part," said Joe Cerrell, an independent political consultant who once directed the California Democratic Party. "Riordan is saying, 'You may have some old pol from Washington on your side, but I've got the neighborhood.' "

Woo's bid for high-profile endorsements, however, could reap dividends. After Waxman's endorsement Friday, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) plans to announce hers today, state Treasurer Kathleen Brown is already committed, Jesse Jackson is in the wings and President Clinton is still a possibility.

Such a formidable cadre of party royalty could help Woo in a variety of ways, shoring up his image with Democratic moderates, women and Jewish voters who cast their lot with other candidates in the primary. And it could help him raise money.

Although most experts contend that a candidate's message matters most, endorsements can help. "Is it possible to make what is supposed to be a nonpartisan race into a partisan race? Yes, you can," said Mark Mellman, a Washington-based Democratic pollster who is not involved in the mayor's race. "And you can do that with endorsements. Again it is the message: 'We're Democrats. Mike Woo is a good Democrat. And Riordan represents Reagan Republicanism.' "

The state Democratic Party's endorsement last week gives Woo access to the party's vast resources, which could provide a vital boost as he attempts to stay financially competitive with an opponent capable of pouring his personal millions into the campaign.

With a base of more than 100,000 contributors, Woo's party could quickly raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, including large donations from wealthy supporters and labor unions. It also is capable of mobilizing volunteers, running get-out-the-vote phone banks, producing specialized mailings and organizing large rallies.

But by breaking with tradition and welcoming a separately funded, Democratic Party campaign into the nonpartisan race, Woo has reached beyond the campaign finance limitations envisioned in the city ethics laws he has claimed credit for writing--and given Riordan an opening to attack him for being hypocritical.

Although posing as the father of city ethics reform, Riordan said, Woo is taking advantage of a legal loophole that allows political parties to make contributions and expenditures above city limits.

Woo's effort to turn the race into a partisan battle has other risks as well. There is the possibility of looking weak in the eyes of his party if noteworthy endorsements fail to materialize. One already has. Mayor Tom Bradley, eminent Democrat and the man whose multiethnic coalition Woo hopes to inherit June 8, indicated that he would not be endorsing either candidate.

But where Woo could be hurt the most in the endorsement derby he has set in motion is if the President decides not to endorse him.

"Woo is pressing very hard for a commitment. I would be too," a senior White House official said this week.

Woo has good reason to press his case with the President, said Mellman. An endorsement followed by a presidential visit on the eve of the election could be a decisive stroke, the consultant said.

"It increases interest, galvanizes turnout and it could mean a lot," he said. "In a race like this, it could be the difference between winning and losing."

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