ROSEVILLE, Calif. — Gubernatorial candidate Richard Riordan was pushed into defending his positions on abortion, crime and California's energy mess on Monday as Gov. Gray Davis released television ads pounding his leading GOP rival.
On a daylong bus trip from San Francisco to Sacramento, the former mayor of Los Angeles faced the most aggressive attacks of the campaign.
The two new Davis ads tap into negative sentiments toward Los Angeles among Californians in other parts of the state. One of them, running in the Central Valley, cites rising rates of homicide, assault and auto theft in Los Angeles and questions whether Riordan has "a record we can trust."
The other, running in the Bay Area, Monterey and other parts of Northern California, says Riordan "gouged the rest of the state" on electricity during the blackouts last year--even though "the rest of California helped Los Angeles rebuild after the Northridge earthquake."
The spot invokes the Enron scandal. It says Los Angeles, under Riordan, charged the rest of the state "more than Enron"--the bankrupt energy supplier--for electricity produced by the city's utility.
Riordan said Davis' ads reflected the "desperation" of an unpopular governor who hopes to divert attention from the $12-billion state budget shortfall and other troublesome issues.
"Gray Davis is not going to fool the public," Riordan said after a visit to a jelly bean factory in Fairfield. "They want to hear from him about what he's done on education, transportation, jobs, water, housing and health care."
Garry South, Davis' chief political strategist, said the ads were a response to Riordan's "personal and vitriolic" attacks on the governor.
He recalled that Riordan has accused Davis of "gross mismanagement," and "despicable" and "immoral" actions as governor.
"We've been very patient here with this guy," South said. "I warned him for weeks that we wouldn't sit by and let him use the governor as a punching bag without a very aggressive response."
In a vast state where television ads are the essential means of reaching voters, the Davis barrage poses the most serious challenge so far to Riordan's candidacy.
A new Los Angeles Times poll shows Riordan with a double-digit lead over his two opponents in the March 5 Republican primary: California Secretary of State Bill Jones and Los Angeles businessman Bill Simon Jr.
Both are more conservative than Riordan, whose moderate views on social issues such as abortion and gay rights are unpopular in GOP strongholds such as the Central Valley.
The Davis ads complicate Riordan's efforts to introduce himself to voters outside Los Angeles on his own terms. On Monday, Riordan had planned to focus on his fiscal management skills as he set off on the final two-day leg of a statewide bus tour. Instead, he started his day with a hastily arranged gathering with Republican women in San Francisco to respond to a Davis television spot that depicts him as an opponent of abortion rights.
"Let me make one thing clear to you today: I'm pro-choice," Riordan said in a corporate conference room with 17 women lined up behind him.
"I strongly support the right of women to make their own decision with respect to their bodies, their careers, their families and every part of their lives. Gov. Davis is acting desperate the last week. He's trying to keep people's eye off the ball."
Riordan acknowledged that the ad was correct in asserting that he had donated money to anti-abortion groups in 1987 and 1991.
With his voice trembling in apparent nervousness, he said what's important is that Los Angeles voters knew about those donations when they elected him mayor in 1993.
"They believed me, they trusted me, and I think I did what they wanted me to do as mayor," he said.
"The bottom line is they knew I was pro-choice, I knew I was pro-choice, and that's true today."
Riordan also responded to the Davis ad's assertion that he raised money for the 1987 campaign to put Robert Bork, an advocate of overturning Roe vs. Wade, on the U.S. Supreme Court.
"You can go back over somebody's life and prove anything you want," he said. "Bork was nominated by President Reagan, and I supported President Reagan. You can go back over the over $30 million I've given in my life to charity, and you can come up with a bunch of questions."
Later, as his bus set off across the Bay Bridge for the Central Valley, Riordan called the Davis abortion spot a "vicious, personal attack."
The new ads left Riordan advisors tossing around theories about why the Democratic governor was running the ads in January.
Davis, they said, is either trying to stop Riordan from gaining momentum for the general election, or he's trying to help Simon or Jones win the GOP nomination so he can face a more conservative--and less electable--Republican in November.
Davis' "favorite scenario," said Riordan campaign manager Ron Hartwig, is "to run against one of two guys who are pro-life."
Simon, in fact, jumped into the abortion dispute on Monday.