Ignoring calls for unity, the three major Republican candidates for governor squabbled Saturday over age, pedigree and campaign tactics at a daylong convention aimed at softening the GOP's harsh image.
Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan was the focus of the attacks, led by Secretary of State Bill Jones, who used charts and grainy mug shots to document Riordan's ties to Democratic candidates and political operatives.
The third major hopeful, investment banker Bill Simon Jr., was milder in his criticism, admitting that he--like Riordan--had once contributed to the man each hopes to beat in 2002: incumbent Democrat Gray Davis.
But Simon suggested his $250 contribution to Davis in 1998 was meager alongside the more than $1 million that Riordan has given to Democratic campaigns and causes over the years. "You have to look at scale," Simon said.
The backbiting came as Republicans convened at a hotel near Los Angeles International Airport for an abridged session delayed by last month's terrorist attack. The main business was adopting new operating guidelines intended to give President Bush and his proxies greater control over the party, curtailing the influence of more conservative activists who are seen as having limited the GOP's appeal.
The candidates for governor were not a part of the formal program. Instead, they met separately with reporters and circulated at a small fund-raising reception hosted by former U.S. Rep. James Rogan of Glendale. The three clapped gamely when Rogan urged harmony and admonished that "you can't be a good Republican and attack other Republicans."
But the show of fraternity was merely superficial.
For months, Jones has targeted Riordan--the front-runner in money-raising and popularity polls--and he continued to press his case Saturday, aggressively questioning the former mayor's GOP credentials and fealty to party principles.
He decorated a hotel room with poster-size charts documenting Riordan's spending on Democratic candidates and blown-up photographs of Democrats who support Riordan's candidacy--including party strategists Clint Reilly and Susan Estrich and Riordan's wife, Nancy Daly Riordan. One giant photo showed a joyous Riordan clasping hands with Davis.
Despite those props and the sharply negative tone of the session, Jones insisted that "our focus will be on a positive campaign."
That said, a top Jones strategist, Ed Rollins, told reporters a few moments later, "We're going to put the wood" to Riordan. He said Riordan has no chance of beating Davis should he win the nomination.
For one thing, Rollins questioned the former mayor's knowledge of state issues and aptitude for learning as he campaigns across California. "When you're 71 years old, you're not going to learn a whole lot," Rollins said of the septuagenarian front-runner.
Riordan, who spoke with reporters as he circulated among convention delegates, literally laughed off Rollins' comment. He also chuckled at Jones' attack signs. "I think they're fun," said Riordan, who was attending his first state party convention.
But he bridled at mention of his spouse. "I'm being accused of guilt by association for living with a Democrat, my wife. You know, this is going a little too far," Riordan said. "Bill Jones and everybody else here knows that Dick Riordan is a Republican," he said. "They want a problem solver, they want somebody that's going to make the streets safer, have a stronger economy, cut back on the bureaucracy and turn this state around."
For its part, the Riordan campaign slapped back at Jones by handing out news clippings recalling the secretary of state's defection last year from Bush to Sen. John McCain at a critical juncture in the 2000 presidential campaign. Allies of the president, who coaxed Riordan into the race, have never forgiven Jones for the breach.
The third major candidate, Simon, is a friend of Riordan, who urged the Los Angeles financier to enter the race before deciding himself to run. "Funny things happen in life," Simon said.
He took a few small jabs at Riordan for his association with Democrats. But for the most part, the first-time candidate avoided attacks. "The less time I spend knocking my opponents the better in my estimation, whether he's a friend or not a friend," Simon said.
Asked about his own record supporting Democrats, Simon cited the $250 contribution to Davis and suggested there could be others. "I don't know them all off the top of my head," he told reporters. "Not that there's a lot more than that."
Republicans concluded their gathering by hastily approving a package of rule changes pushed by the White House and its political allies in the state. The swift approval on a voice vote of more than 800 delegates belied the months of bitter debate surrounding the proposal.
The changes are designed to professionalize the party's operations and provide greater financial accountability to state's major donors. The move gives greater power to Bush allies, who hope to move the state GOP down a more moderate path.
"It's another step in the direction of Republicans winning in California," said Gerry Parsky, Bush's political point man in the state, who suggested Republicans have scared away many voters by appearing anti-Latino and anti-immigrant and hostile to women.