By launching an early and aggressive TV ad blitz, Gov. Gray Davis is wagering millions of dollars that his reelection team can fatally wound Richard Riordan even before the Republican primary is decided.
Riordan, by turning the proverbial cheek, is gambling as well--that Davis' attacks will backfire on an incumbent whose problems stem in good part from perceptions that he is overly political.
Big-budget ad campaigns are nothing new in California. They are the only truly effective means of communicating in a state with more citizens than Canada and a land mass stretching 760 miles.
But the intensity of Davis' TV effort is audacious even by California standards. He is outspending Riordan--buying more than $1 million in advertising a week, including prime outlets such as the Super Bowl--even though the governor has no serious opposition in the Democratic primary. Riordan faces Republicans Bill Jones and Bill Simon Jr. on March 5 for the right to challenge Davis in the fall.
For the past week, Davis has pounded Riordan with a series of negative spots, forsaking the upbeat, self-promotional advertising that normally ushers in an incumbent reelection campaign. More brazen still, Davis has intruded in the Republican contest by raising the visibility of the contentious abortion issue.
His hope is that any damage could undermine Riordan in the GOP primary--and failing that, harm him in November.
Davis' most heavily seen spot, aimed at wooing back women and disgruntled Democrats, accuses Riordan of opposing abortion rights.
The attack has forced the former Los Angeles mayor, who calls himself "pro-choice," to explain his conflicting record at the risk of antagonizing voters on both sides of the touchy matter. Supporters of abortion rights may question his sincerity, while opponents may be put off by his defense of legal abortion.
Acknowledging their influence over the GOP primary, strategists for Davis have all but invited Riordan's opponents to piggyback on their efforts. In particular, they would like to see businessman Simon pour some of his millions into an ad campaign attacking Riordan, hoping Simon might come from behind and eliminate Davis' most serious rival.
As of Thursday, however, Simon had yet to substantially boost his modest TV buy. Plans call for his newest spot to be a positive one, touting Simon's attributes and steering clear of his opponents. Simon has said, however, that he will eventually air ads critical of Riordan.
Secretary of State Jones, who has the least cash in his campaignaccount of any major candidate in either party, hopes to begin selective TV advertising during the final weeks before the primary.
That leaves Davis and Riordan fighting for supremacy over the state's television airwaves--and over who can define Riordan in the minds of voters.
The former mayor launched the first advertising of the race early last month, a biographical spot that introduced him in glowing terms to viewers outside Los Angeles. Davis followed about a week later withhis own self-flattering spot, which he broadcast statewide.
But Davis switched last Friday to the ad attacking Riordan on abortion, then to advertisements in the Central Valley and Inland Empire that assail his record on crime. Another spot, accusing Los Angeles of profiteering during last year's energy crunch, is running in parts of Northern California.
Anticipating the assault, Riordan launched an immediate response, lamenting Davis' tactics and saying, "Californians deserve better."
Riordan also was forced to answer Davis' attacks at several campaign stops this week, which had the effect of stepping on Riordan's preferred message. Significantly, however, Riordan has chosen not to respond in his own TV spots.
The move is a risky one, as even Riordan strategists acknowledge. Democrat Michael Dukakis was sunk by his failure to respond to the negative advertising of Republican George H.W. Bush. Since their 1988 presidential campaign, the conventional wisdom has held that any attack that goes unanswered will stick.
"In my line of work you hear a lot of people say negative doesn't work, they'll 'try to get above this,' " said Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategist who once worked for Riordan. "That's a prescription to get your butt kicked."
But the ex-mayor's strategists are counting on a profound shift in attitudes since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Their sense is that voters may no longer tolerate the kind of assault the governor has unleashed, especially given his already poor favorability ratings.
"The danger [for Davis] is that people may not be in the mood for a lot of negatives right now," said Don Sipple, chief strategist for the Riordan campaign and a veteran GOP ad man. "It could pile up [Davis'] negatives."
Riordan also wants to avoid a tit for tat that could boost Simon and Jones, who might look civil by comparison.