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Riordan and Davis Trade TV Attack Ads

Politics: Governor criticizes past support of antiabortion candidates and groups by the GOP front-runner, who airs his response.

January 26, 2002|MARK Z. BARABAK and JEFF GOTTLIEB | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In the first clash between the front-runners in the race for governor, Gov. Gray Davis launched a 30-second television ad Friday night criticizing former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan for his past support of antiabortion candidates and organizations.

Riordan, a Republican who has touted support for abortion rights as he seeks to appeal to Democrats and independents, responded with his own ad. He said Davis had "chosen to attack me personally" and that "Californians deserve better."

The alternating salvos came 39 days before the Republican party formally selects its nominee to challenge Davis in November, and served to reflect the commanding lead Riordan has opened up in the primary.

"Where does Richard Riordan really stand on a woman's right to choose?" asks Davis' 30-second spot, which replaces the biographical ads Davis has aired statewide since last week.

Among its criticisms, it says Riordan gave money to antiabortion candidates "as recently as 2001." That was a reference to Riordan's contribution to Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby.

Riordan also raised $500,000 to back the failed 1987 effort to win Judge Robert Bork--a longtime critic of the landmark abortion-rights decision Roe v. Wade--a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, and contributed money to the antiabortion groups Americans United for Life and the Right to Life League.

"Riordan," the spot concludes. "Is this a record we can trust?"

The ad does not mention that the most recent of the contributions to the antiabortion groups was in 1991, a $10,000 gift from a foundation established by Riordan.

The Riordan campaign's response was filmed in December, in anticipation of a Davis attack.

"I believe in taking responsibility and being accountable. Unfortunately, Gov. Davis thinks differently," Riordan says in the segment. "Instead of outlining his plans for our future, he has chosen to attack me personally."

Looking directly into the camera, he added a gibe at Davis' governance: "We have a huge budget deficit, jobs leaving our state and children underperforming in our schools."

According to those familiar with the ads, the Davis campaign is spending about $1.5 million per week on its ad, and the Riordan response will cost somewhat less, about $1 million per week.

Although it is unusual for incumbents to fire across party lines before the primary, there has been a model in recent California history, cited Friday by the Davis campaign: Former Gov. Pete Wilson ran ads on the immigration stance of Democrat Kathleen Brown before her primary in 1994.

Wilson's strategy was to force Brown into a position of angering some part of her constituency no matter how she responded.

In the same fashion, the Davis camp is attempting to carve away support for Riordan among moderates and some Democrats who were attracted to the former mayor's middle-of-the-road social stands. They also want to call into question his characterizations of his record.

As the campaign unfolds, a Riordan response that stresses his abortion-rights stand may turn off some antiabortion Republicans, and acknowledging his past support for antiabortion causes could concern those who back abortion rights, the Davis campaign surmised.

The danger, of which Riordan strategists were hopeful, is that voters overall will be turned off by Davis' negative approach.

"It's too bad the governor has decided to go down this desperate path that's trying to purposely misrepresent the mayor's record," Riordan spokeswoman Margita Thompson said. "He's 100% pro-choice." She did not, however, take issue with the accuracy of Davis' list of Riordan's contributions.

When asked why Riordan gave to antiabortion groups, Thompson replied, "Mayor Riordan has spoken about how you don't need to agree with everyone but you should respect their opinions. So you shouldn't be surprised when he gives to someone with whom he doesn't fully agree."

Davis' chief political strategist, Garry South, said Riordan has been criticizing the governor on the trail for months. "You can kind of consider us the Shaquille O'Neal of politics," South said, referring to the punch that landed the Laker center on a recent suspension. "We're kind of sick and tired of all the constant fouls and we've decided to fight back."

Davis and Riordan have far outpaced the other two GOP candidates in fund-raising and name recognition. Riordan has virtually ignored his primary challengers and stressed his moderate credentials on abortion, immigration and gay rights in the primary, an unorthodox strategy but one which could bear fruit in November.

As for the Republican primary contest, it proceeded Friday in Irvine. All three Republican candidates addressed the Hispanic 100, a 2-month-old group of Orange County business leaders, and the Lincoln Club, a GOP fund-raising group.

The candidates--Riordan, Secretary of State Bill Jones and Los Angeles businessman Bill Simon--touted their pro-industry plans and said they would lower workers' compensation costs and cut regulations to create jobs.

All three oppose affirmative action but assured the audience of about 300 that if they hired the most qualified workers, that would include Latinos.

Republicans have been courting the growing Latino voter bloc, which has turned to Democrats since the GOP's embrace in 1994 of the anti-illegal-immigrant initiative Proposition 187, which denied benefits to undocumented migrants but was largely neutralized by the courts.

Riordan and Simon now say they oppose such an initiative. Jones, who backed it in 1994, says he would modify it to not affect children.

Times staff writer Nicholas Riccardi contributed to this report.

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