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State GOP Must Focus on the Endgame

January 18, 2002|BILL WHALEN | Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, worked on Richard Riordan's gubernatorial exploratory committee in 2001.

With only six weeks to go until the California primary, the race to decide the Republican challenger to Gov. Gray Davis has kicked into high gear. Rudy Giuliani visited Southern California on Thursday to endorse Bill Simon Jr. The three GOP candidates--Simon, California Secretary of State Bill Jones and former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan--meet Tuesday in San Jose for the first of three debates.

The question facing these candidates is whether they will take the high road to primary day. Will they take an honest, reflective look at California's myriad problems, or will they test what little patience Californians have left for political infighting and backbiting? Will they appeal to the greater good of California or to a narrow-minded constituency?

These are timely questions. Suppose there had not been an attack on the World Trade Center and Giuliani had retired from office, only to pull a "Hillary": moving to California and running for governor. Let's not forget that before the events of Sept. 11, Giuliani was a lame duck with a 40% approval rating, a messy divorce and an uncertain future.

How would conservative activists receive Time's "Person of the Year"? They likely would attack him for being pro-choice. They probably would lampoon his lifestyle, as the decidedly heterosexual Giuliani, estranged from his wife, shared an apartment with a same-sex couple in the final months of his administration. They would vilify him for choosing the liberal icon Mario Cuomo over Republican George Pataki in the 1994 New York governor's race. And Democrats would pile it on by questioning whether Giuliani, a prostate cancer survivor, is fit for office.

We can speculate that this might occur because all of it already has, at Riordan's expense. Los Angeles' former mayor is the West Coast version of Giuliani: pro-choice, pro-gay rights, a supporter of Democratic candidates and a prostate cancer survivor to boot. He's the bull's-eye in this primary because he's the front-runner and because his moderate stances offend others' sensibilities.

This is why California Republicans fail miserably in elections, and what must comfort Davis even while his popularity sags. The party out of power, with 1.7 million fewer registered voters, has to reach beyond party lines to build winning coalitions. That means adding moderates and independents to the conservative base.

Instead, the most vocal of party faithful obsess over "purity" and what constitutes a "true" Republican. Such debates are nonproductive. Riordan is not considered a true Republican because he has donated money to Davis. Yet Republicans now hail Giuliani even though he was pro-Cuomo. Does this mean Giuliani gets a pass because he's a cultural icon?

Among Republicans, is there a statute of limitations on past transgressions? It's murky. Then again, so are the choices in this primary. Riordan has donated to Democrats. So has Simon. Jones dumped George W. Bush for John McCain. Two of the three candidates will be sacrificed in the primary, but none is as pure as conservatives would like.

Is Riordan the best choice for Republicans? Maybe, maybe not. But if California Republicans are serious about regaining power, they'd do well to make that decision based on the man's record as mayor and what he aims to do in Sacramento.

Fortunately for the three candidates, six weeks leaves plenty of time to break old habits. Why not a primary in which they talk about spending priorities, getting California back on the right track and how the next governor can heal a state that's socially divided?

It sounds like the near-impossible--like a job for ... Giuliani.

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