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THE RACE FOR GOVERNOR

Riordan, Simon Tied in Volatile GOP Primary

Poll: Ex-mayor's big lead vanishes in barrage of negative ads by Gov. Davis. Low turnout could favor Simon, the clear choice of conservatives.

February 26, 2002|MARK Z. BARABAK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Battered by a wave of negative advertising, Richard Riordan has fallen from the lead and now runs dead even with Bill Simon Jr. as the Republican race for governor enters its final week, according to a Los Angeles Times poll.

Simon has emerged as the clear favorite of GOP conservatives, pushing Bill Jones into a distant third place. With his firm support among the party base, Simon could benefit the most if a low turnout next Tuesday enhances the influence of Republican activists.

On the Democratic side, incumbent Gray Davis' unusual strategy of intervening in the GOP primary by targeting Riordan with a barrage of negative TV spots has clearly made a difference.

His approval ratings are still anemic, but Davis now runs ahead of all three GOP contestants among registered voters in a prospective fall matchup. Last month, he ran even with Riordan.

Although he received much of the blame for the sharply negative tone of the gubernatorial contest, Davis' overall favorable impression has not suffered. The governor faces no serious opposition in the Democratic race.

With just seven days of campaigning left, the contest remains volatile, and a substantial percentage of voters are still undecided. But the survey, conducted Wednesday through Sunday, offered few bright spots for Riordan, the former mayor of Los Angeles who was coaxed into the race by the White House and has been viewed as the prohibitive front-runner until now.

A central argument of his candidacy--that he would be the most formidable candidate against Davis--is undermined by the survey, which finds that millionaire businessman Simon now runs equally strong against the incumbent.

Moreover, Riordan's repeated assertions that Republicans should moderate the party's stance on issues, such as abortion rights, to improve its chances in November is soundly rejected--52% to 40%--by likely GOP primary voters.

"Either you're pro-choice or pro-life. There's nothing in between," said Thad Luyben, a 44-year-old Yorba Linda funeral director, who has soured on Riordan because he seems to be "teeter-tottering back and forth."

Overall, Riordan's lead in the GOP primary has shrunk dramatically in the last month, when he enjoyed a double-digit edge over Simon and Secretary of State Jones.

Riordan and Simon now run neck-and-neck among likely Republican primary voters, with 31% support for each when a moderate turnout is projected. Jones received 14%, and 22% of those surveyed were undecided.

Under a projected low turnout, Simon had 29% support, Riordan 26% and Jones 11%, with the rest undecided.

TV Ads Play Big Role for Voters

Not surprisingly, the most important factor in this media-centric state has been the blitz of advertisements filling the television airwaves.

Nearly eight in 10 likely Republican primary voters said they had seen or heard at least some of the advertising in the race. The bulk of the spots has targeted Riordan, and the criticism of the erstwhile front-runner has clearly taken a toll.

Just about half of likely GOP primary voters, 54%, had a positive impression of the former Los Angeles mayor, down from 63% in January. More significant, the 30% who viewed Riordan unfavorably was almost double the percentage that had a negative opinion a month ago.

"I had more positive thoughts when the campaign first began than I do now," said 64-year-old Donna Reich of San Francisco, who has moved into the Simon camp because of the advertising attacks on Riordan. "He just comes across to me as sincere and not too political," Reich said of Simon.

The Pacific Palisades financier has been mostly positive in his advertisements, save for a spot that began airing at the end of last week. That ad was a response to an attack by Riordan.

In the last month, Simon's image has improved steadily, with 55% now viewing the first-time candidate positively and only 8% holding a negative view. About a third of likely GOP voters are still unaware of Simon, who is making his first try for public office.

Even so, the generally warm feelings toward Simon have translated into a more positive assessment of how he would deal with specific issues facing the state.

In last month's survey, Riordan received the highest marks among likely Republican voters on the issues of public education, crime, the economy and which candidate was best equipped to handle the state's energy situation.

But in the latest poll, Simon was picked as the one who could do the best job on the economy and energy. He ran even with Riordan on handling education.

The former mayor was still ahead on the question of who could best fight crime, and he led Simon when it came to which candidate knows more about the issues affecting California.

"I support Riordan because he was mayor of a large city," said Allen Clark, an 81-year-old Sacramento retiree. "I just feel he's more experienced."

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