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Jones Shines in Debate, but How to Build on It?

January 24, 2002|George Skelton


Three Republican wannabe governors held the first televised debate of the 2002 election season Tuesday night. And now we'll open the envelopes.

* Best performance: Secretary of State Bill Jones.

* Best water-treader: former Mayor Richard Riordan.

* Best eye-glazer: businessman Bill Simon.

That's not quite the conventional wisdom. The common mantra is that Riordan won by not losing. He's running so far ahead in the race for the GOP nomination--28 points ahead of Jones, 37 ahead of Simon in one nonpartisan survey (Public Policy Institute of California)--that all he needed to do was not stumble noticeably. He didn't.

But Riordan did slip a bit, once talking about "the minimum tax" when he meant minimum wage. And he ventured into an area of state government where he sounded over his head, sputtering vaguely about consolidating all education leadership in one agency. He'd have to persuade voters to change the state Constitution.

Riordan also was roughed up by Jones for being a liberal--by Republican standards--and having donated $1 million to Democratic causes. "I don't have a comfort level you would be there on basic issues Republicans believe in," Jones told him. "You have to be a Republican not just in name."

Moreover, Riordan occasionally looked ragged, prompting some adversaries, junkies and reporters to whisper that he was showing his 71 years.

So he survived but suffered nicks that could hurt him down the track--if GOP voters decide they can't tolerate his left leanings, or the November electorate concludes that he doesn't stack up to Gov. Gray Davis in experience, energy and ability.

No matter what spin is applied, Riordan did not emerge the winner, even if he didn't lose.

But neither did Jones come out the victor. That's because he doesn't have enough money to capitalize on his first-rate performance by immediately buying TV ads. And the performance wasn't powerful enough, on its own, to accelerate a campaign running low on fuel.

While Riordan looked like a governor right out of Central Casting--or maybe a former governor--Jones both looked and sounded like one. The 20-year veteran of the state Capitol was the only debater who always seemed to know what he was talking about. He exuded confidence that here was one candidate who wouldn't need a course in dumbbell governorship.

And after a nervous start, Jones sounded calm, steady and articulate--leadership characteristics, but not always his in the past. He rose to the occasion by being himself.

He had the most succinct mission statement: "My vision clearly is this--fewer crime victims, better educated children, healthier families and an economy that's strong enough to generate jobs for all who want one."

Jones also got the only laugh from the San Jose State audience. It came as he belittled Simon's claim of being the "candidate of ideas" and, as an afterthought, jabbed Davis. Said Jones: "Mr. Simon . . . a governor proposes and the Legislature disposes. (Pause) Unfortunately, in California now we have a governor who just supposes."

That was it for debate humor.

Simon was the loser. The rookie pol seemed over-rehearsed, with an incessant plastic smile. Or, maybe he was under-rehearsed. He came across as insincere, as if he were reciting a script that hadn't quite been internalized.

This was Simon's chance to be discovered by voters, and he didn't stand up.

It was his opportunity to bloody up Riordan--his good friend--and he couldn't bring himself to do that. Asked why, he cited Ronald Reagan's old 11th commandment about not speaking ill of another Republican. But Reagan never ran 37 points back in a poll. Simon's main message was "I'm a proud conservative Republican." He and Jones are targeting the same voters, the conservatives who normally dominate GOP primaries.

Riordan's message of inclusion--respect for different views--was the most powerful and one that is at the core of the Republican dilemma March 5. He is to the left of most GOP politicians and activists, favoring abortion rights, gay rights, government services for illegal immigrants. . . . But because of his broad ideological appeal and name ID, polls show Riordan has the best chance of beating Davis in November.

He put it this way to Jones and Simon: "Your positions would turn [the GOP] from an endangered species into an extinct species. . . . We need a new Republican Party."

A party with mainstream candidates. That's the big debate in the GOP--one Riordan still must win.

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