SAN LUIS OBISPO — Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan may be the man to beat among Republicans vying to be governor. But Secretary of State Bill Jones and businessman Bill Simon Jr. aren't ready to accept that.
All three appeared Saturday before volunteers from the California Federation of Republican Women, with Jones pointing out that Riordan has contributed to a "virtual who's who of liberal candidates" in the last two decades. The accusation drew groans from many in the crowd.
Jones' remarks provided the only fireworks at an otherwise cordial foray into the Republican campaign for governor, a race expected to kick into high gear shorty as the March 5 primary approaches.
Saturday's event was an early must for three candidates; 500 women were in attendance, representing 20,000 Republican women activists across the state. Each candidate gave a short speech and then answered questions.
"They don't win without us," said Joan Clendenin, a delegate from Modesto. "That's the bottom line. They don't win without our work, and they don't win without our votes."
Casting himself as a firebrand, Jones sounded alternately like the underdog and the only candidate who has a chance to beat incumbent Democratic Gov. Gray Davis.
"I like to welcome new Republicans like Dick Riordan to the Republican Party," Jones quipped. But he also said that a close look at issues such as the Rampart police scandal show that not all was well on Riordan's watch.
Each of the candidates mentioned the issue that they believe may haunt Davis the most--power contracts that require the state to pay a higher cost for energy than the current market value.
Riordan addressed the criticism that he made extensive contributions to Democrats by stressing that he did so to serve the interests of Los Angeles.
Speaking first, Riordan gave a gentler and anecdote-filled speech about how he worked around the bureaucracy, particularly after the Northridge earthquake. The only criticism he leveled at anyone was aimed at Davis, whom he accused of micromanaging state government.
Riordan acknowledged that he might be the best challenger to take on Davis even though he might have the hardest time winning the primary.
Simon's speech seemed to touch many in the audience with references to New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Simon once worked for Giuliani in the U.S. attorney's office in New York, and Giuliani has endorsed his candidacy.
Simon promoted his business experience, including his role in starting the family-oriented television network PAX TV. "They told me a station with no sex and no violence was a bad thing. You are interested in that kind of television? I know I am."
Simon and Riordan are close friends and attend the same church. When asked if he could find anything negative to say about Simon, Riordan answered, "He's a lousy tennis player."
In pre-primary polls, Riordan--expected to formally enter the race next month--has held a strong lead over Simon and Jones. For them, the biggest problem even among the well-informed crowd seemed to be competing with Riordan's name recognition.
"My favorite would maybe be Bill Simon," said Marcella Whitmore of Arcadia. "But I'll tell you something. When it comes down to it, I'm a pragmatic Republican and I want somebody who can win. Riordan can maybe win."