Gray Davis won big in 1998. He even got 45% in Orange County--a strong showing in a place where Republicans score a knockout. Can he repeat his performance next year?
Clearly, he has vulnerabilities. The energy crisis has introduced many voters to the worst of Gray Davis. He dithered as the lights dimmed, and when blackouts hit, he put blame-fixing ahead of problem-solving.
His governing style wasn't pretty, combining Bill Clinton's candor with Bob Dornan's velvet touch. In fact, he hired two Clinton flacks, who were more famous for their hatchet work than their energy expertise.
Apparently at their urging, he said: "We are literally at war with energy companies that are price-gouging us. Many of those companies are in Texas." Davis and company literally do not know the meaning of "literally." If we were literally at war with Texas businesses, the California National Guard would have invaded Houston by now.
To top it off, he recently had to sack five energy consultants who owned energy stock.
Nevertheless, the crisis has hurt him less than one might have thought. Among other things, mild temperatures in July curbed energy usage and helped avert blackouts. So will he become California's Comeback Kid? That depends on the Republican field.
On paper, Secretary of State Bill Jones looks formidable. He is the only Republican in a statewide elective office, and most observers agree that he has done a fine job. He is thoughtful and reform-minded, not at all the scary kind of figure that Democrats love to run against.
Jones faces big obstacles, however. Most Californians neither know nor care what the secretary of state does. His home base of Fresno is isolated from the major population centers. Worst of all, he blundered last year when he withdrew his endorsement of George W. Bush for the GOP presidential nomination and switched to John McCain--just in time to see Bush sweep the state Republican primary. The episode left Bush's allies cool to Jones and caused the political world to wonder about his street smarts.
That's one reason for contributors' hesitation. At last report, Jones had raised just under $1 million since starting his campaign. That may sound like a respectable sum, but it scarcely exceeds the interest on Davis' $30-million war chest.
Money would be less of a hurdle for wealthy businessman Bill Simon, son of the late Treasury Secretary William Simon. He has never run for office, but in a recent speech he told of another novice who took on an entrenched incumbent at a time when Democrats ruled the Legislature. That was Ronald Reagan in 1966, and Simon suggested that he could duplicate Reagan's feat.
He skipped some differences. California was more Republican then. Two years before Reagan's election, GOP conservative George Murphy had won a U.S. Senate seat despite the LBJ landslide. Furthermore, Reagan's movie career had already made him a familiar figure. Political junkies of a certain age might remember Simon's father, but few voters even know what the son looks like.
Millions of ad dollars might raise his profile, but money doesn't guarantee victory for rich newcomers. Just ask Al Checchi and Michael Huffington.
That leaves former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, who is "exploring" candidacy. Riordan has won in a Democratic constituency, and his personal wealth would enable him to keep up with Davis in a money war. Thanks to local television news, he is a familiar face throughout Southern California.
Riordan's moderate-to-liberal stands on social issues ordinarily might hurt in a GOP primary, but things are different this time. A change in election law has opened party primaries to independents, who would favor him over more partisan rivals. Moreover, many conservative Republicans--including prominent figures in Orange County--are willing to overlook ideological differences for the sake of beating Davis.
So can Riordan build enough support in Orange County and the rest of the state? History suggests caution. His two predecessors, Sam Yorty and Tom Bradley, failed in bids for higher office. With all of its problems, Los Angeles can be more a millstone than a steppingstone. Television stories about local government usually involve something like the Rampart police scandal. While Riordan can point to improvements, suburbanites regard the city with mixed feelings at best. That's why they moved to the suburbs in the first place. In much of Orange County, his vocal support for an El Toro airport would not be helpful.
And to put it bluntly, Riordan is 71 years old. He looks and sounds every minute of it. Davis would surely find ways of contrasting Riordan's advanced years with his own relative youth and icy vigor. It would be ironic indeed if Davis ran as the man with the energy.