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GOP Candidates Fumble the Opportunity to Bench Davis

January 24, 2002|DAN SCHNUR | Dan Schnur was communications director for former Gov. Pete Wilson. Last summer, he also advised Richard Riordan's gubernatorial exploratory committee.

If November's gubernatorial election is the World Series of California politics, then Tuesday night's Republican primary debate was only the beginning of spring training.

The scouting report contains both good and bad news.

All three candidates showed flashes of the potential needed to knock off the defending champion, but each also demonstrated that he'll need a lot of practice time if his confrontation with Gray Davis is going to be a true fall classic.

First the good news. Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, California Secretary of State Bill Jones and businessman Bill Simon each accomplished his objectives for the debate. Riordan presented himself as a nonpartisan problem-solver, Jones showed his credentials as the most experienced politician and Simon came across as the conservative activist.

Riordan clearly believes that the center of the party can bring him the nomination, while Jones and Simon elbow for advantage among the conservatives who represent the GOP base.

Combine the best of the three men into one candidate and the GOP would have an ideal nominee: an experienced officeholder with mainstream appeal who can motivate conservative voters. Failing that unlikely scenario, each of the three is gambling that his persona can appeal to the portion of the Republican electorate that he'll need to carry the primary.

All three candidates effectively took on the shortcomings in Davis' record, bashing the incumbent governor for his failures on education, energy and the economy. Davis is not a difficult target: California has a $12-billion budget deficit, a continuing energy crisis made worse by Davis' unwillingness to act more quickly and student test scores that rank among the lowest in the nation.

But despite Davis' obvious vulnerabilities on the issues and his continued slippage in public opinion polls, this governor is no pushover. The combination of a $35-million war chest and a ruthlessness that would allow him to wrestle his own grandmother on broken glass if his donors requested it make him an extremely formidable foe.

Now for the bad news in the scouting report. Tuesday's debate contained many moments in which the three men showed how much progress each must make if he is to be ready for this challenge.

One such moment was when the candidates were asked about campaign contributions from Enron Corp. Taking on Enron these days requires only slightly more political courage than criticizing Al Qaeda, so the question should have been a fastball right down the middle that could have been hit out of the park. But the three Republicans didn't even take a swing.

On a day in which Enron employees admitted to shredding financial records after the bankruptcy declaration and President Bush issued strong criticism against the fallen energy giant, the candidates were oddly reticent. Jones and Simon warned about prematurely jumping to conclusions against Enron. Riordan promised to return any contributions he received from the bankrupt company. None of them spoke out against the corporation's excesses and alleged illegalities.

None of them drew the parallels between Enron's access in Washington and the incestuous relationship that the Davis administration developed with Southern California Edison at the depths of the energy crisis. Worst of all, none of them took Davis to task for his inexplicable refusal to return money that he has received from Enron.

Such rookie mistakes are not fatal, certainly not at this early stage of the election season. All three candidates showed that they have the talent to take the case against Davis to the voters in the fall. But Tuesday's practice session points to the need for all three men to sharpen their skills before they're ready to step into the batter's box against a battle-tested incumbent governor.

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