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Coastal Voters Targeted as Key to Riordan Win

Politics: GOP candidate for governor believes his moderate social views will regain the support of those who spurned previous Republicans.

January 28, 2002|MICHAEL FINNEGAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA BARBARA — It's no accident that gubernatorial candidate Richard Riordan chose the Central Coast last week as the spot to trumpet his support for abortion rights and school reform.

Coastal voters--from San Diego to the northern end of San Francisco Bay--are a key target for the Riordan campaign.

They have spurned fellow Republicans in one election after another since 1996. But Riordan's strategists are betting that his mix of fiscal toughness and moderation on social issues can win them back.

Their support was crucial to the success of Pete Wilson, California's last Republican governor and a politician with a similar ideology. Without them, victory for the GOP gubernatorial candidate--whether Riordan or another Republican--is all but impossible in November.

"This is a really important piece of business for the Republican Party--to get competitive again in coastal California," said Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategist and former Riordan advisor. "Ultimately it will define the Republican Party's ability to be a real competitive party in California."

Above all, Riordan strategists hope he will draw support from Republican and independent women on the coast--a group that voted in large numbers for Al Gore, Gray Davis and a slew of other Democrats in recent congressional and state legislative races.

"It's women along the coast who have most turned against Republicans," said GOP political analyst Allan Hoffenblum.

Davis, facing a tough reelection fight, is working to maintain support among coastal voters. On Friday, he sent the Bush administration a letter saying new offshore oil drilling "would be unacceptable" in California. It's a sentiment widely shared among residents of coastal areas, where environmental protection is popular.

Among the other issues that resonate with coastal voters, strategists say, are education and abortion rights. Davis casts himself as a champion of both issues in his campaign advertising, and on Friday night began airing advertisements critical of Riordan's past financial support of abortion opponents. The former Los Angeles mayor contends that despite that support, he favors abortion rights.

For his part, Riordan talked of both education and abortion rights last week as he campaigned on the Central Coast. On Wednesday, he stumped in Monterey and Salinas, where he toured a school construction site. On Thursday, he campaigned in Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo, Santa Maria and Santa Barbara, riding in his campaign bus down U.S. 101 amid picture-perfect landscapes of beaches and rolling green hills.

"I cannot win this state without the Central Coast," Riordan told reporters as the bus rumbled past Pismo Beach.

A campaign video crew captured much of the day on camera for television ads--including his rendition of "As Time Goes By" on a piano at the Madonna Inn, a landmark of roadside kitsch in San Luis Obispo.

By tradition, GOP primary candidates have focused on rallying the party's conservative base in the California "fish hook." It goes straight down the middle of the state, from the rural north through the Central Valley and Inland Empire to the Mexican border, then back up along the coast from San Diego to Orange County.

"You go where the votes are, and that's where the great mass of Republican votes are," said GOP strategist Ken Khachigian.

Riordan has not ignored those areas, where his moderate views on gay rights and other issues are unpopular; his statewide bus tour will conclude Tuesday with a visit to Fresno, the hometown of one of his more conservative GOP rivals, California Secretary of State Bill Jones.

But Riordan, who also faces Los Angeles financier Bill Simon Jr. in the March 5 primary, is the only GOP candidate who has targeted coastal voters as a base of support.

"Is the fish hook important? Yes," said Don Sipple, Riordan's chief strategist. "Is it exclusively the road to victory? No. We're going to put emphasis on the coastal counties. We believe Dick Riordan is the kind of Republican who can attract support in those areas."

By and large, the political outlook of many coastal Republicans--indeed, many coastal residents of any political persuasion--is similar to Riordan's. Many reside in affluent enclaves--La Jolla, the Westside of Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara, Carmel, the suburbs of San Francisco. Among them are Hollywood and high-tech professionals. As GOP strategist Tony Quinn put it, they are more apt to drive luxury sedans than pickup trucks.

"I don't think you see many expensive Mercedes-Benzes with gun racks on them," he said.

In Paso Robles last week, Riordan stopped for bacon and eggs at Joe's Place, where he touted his proposal to cut school bureaucracy and shift more money to classrooms.

After breakfast, he wandered to the table of a school bus driver, Kelly Stainbrook, 40.

"Are you pro-life or pro-choice?" he asked her.

"That's something I'll keep to myself," she responded.

"OK," Riordan said. "Well, I'm in favor of a woman's right to make her own decisions."

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