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COLUMN ONE : Playing the Big-Name Game : As the election looms, Riordan and Woo try to one-up each other with endorsements. History casts doubt on success of such tactics, but in this race, anything that gets voters to the polls could be crucial.

May 27, 1993|FRANK CLIFFORD and JAMES RAINEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

How many Bob Hopes does it take to neutralize one Gloria Molina? Does a police union pack more firepower than the Sierra Club? And are there times when a prominent black lawyer matters more than the President of the United States?

The mathematics of political endorsements is dizzily inexact. History shows they often are useless. Pollsters say they cannot measure their effectiveness because people do not like to admit they are voting for a candidate based on someone else's say-so.

Nonetheless, the two men vying to become mayor of Los Angeles have not been able to resist the lure of this time-honored political custom.

And, for once, experts say, they may be right. For although Richard Riordan and Michael Woo may find endorsements an uncertain business, Los Angeles' communities are so fragmented--and both candidates have such deep identity problems--that they need to take chances to build bridges and to rebuild their images. The best strategy may be through surrogates who can reach specific audiences and help get out the vote--crucial here because polls show a lower turnout will favor Riordan and a higher turnout will favor Woo.

So both men have been playing the name game since the April primary. Riordan scored his first coup with attorney Stan Sanders, the leading African-American candidate in the primary. Woo countered with popular County Supervisor Gloria Molina and President Clinton.

This exercise in one-upmanship is intensifying as the June 8 election nears. This week, Riordan picked up the endorsement of the Police Protective League and Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block, while Woo received the blessing of the Rev. Cecil Murray, the influential pastor of First African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Attention also has focused on some of the people who are not in either camp.

"The big question isn't the endorsements they've gotten, but the one they haven't," said Kerman Maddox, a political consultant based in South Los Angeles. Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) "is the only person I know that can generate a substantial turnout, at least where I live," he said. "Hers is the most important in terms of exciting people and getting the vote out."

Mayor Tom Bradley has also stayed out of the fray. Although the value of his endorsement is debatable as his career ends on a less than triumphant note, his silence has deprived Woo of support from one of the city's most revered African-American political figures.

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To the candidates and their campaign staffs, endorsements can be passports of a sort, allowing for political passage through the city's diverse communities.

"When you are dealing with lots of groups, you need to have people who are recognized as significant in that group endorse the candidate," said Bob Burke, the Riordan campaign's liaison with the Jewish community. "The endorsement says to other members of that group, 'I have studied this man's record and I am putting my imprimatur on it.' "

Endorsements also have another important goal--to generate enough excitement to get voters to the polls. Turnout is likely to be critical: Although Woo led among all registered voters surveyed in a recent Times poll, Riordan led among those most likely to turn out Election Day.

The poll also showed that many voters have strong reservations about both Woo and Riordan; the candidates hope that endorsements will soften that resistance.

"There is a deep disaffection and ambivalence about who people should vote for," said City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, who is staying neutral. "For the first time in a really long time, I sense that voters could be influenced by endorsements."

Independent consultant Bill Carrick agreed. "There is a substantial number of people who don't like either Riordan or Woo, so the message of surrogates has been substantially enhanced in this campaign. The campaign is going to be a war about endorsements, rather than one of ideas or ideologies," Carrick said.

In that war, Woo and Riordan have pursued strikingly different strategies.

During the primary, Riordan, a Republican businessman, concentrated on courting conservative voters, his campaign literature festooned with endorsements by former President Ronald Reagan, former HUD Secretary Jack Kemp and Gov. Pete Wilson.

Democratic Councilman Woo built his foundation in the African-American community with the help of a number of ministers and businessmen and with the endorsement of Mark Ridley-Thomas, the City Council's most influential black member.

In the runoff of this officially nonpartisan race, both candidates are competing for the same voters--moderate Democrats--but they again use endorsements differently.

Riordan appears to be trying to break off enough support from Democrats and non-Anglos to prove two points: that he is not the right-wing extremist he has been accused of being and that Woo is not the heir-apparent to the city's ethnic communities.

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