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Riordan Runs With the Big Dogs and Gets Nipped

January 29, 2002|PHILIP J. TROUNSTINE | Philip J. Trounstine is the former political editor of the San Jose Mercury News and former communications director for Gov. Gray Davis. He is currently a communications consultant and director of the Survey and Policy Research Institute at San Jose State University.

Poor Richard. Riordan, that is. After months of smashing, bashing and trashing Gov. Gray Davis for everything from California's recession to the rising price of electricity, the former Los Angeles mayor has suddenly discovered you don't get a free pass to attack a sitting governor who is serious about keeping his job.

Davis has responded with a television ad questioning Riordan's self-professed stance in favor of abortion rights.

In a state where pro-choice sentiment is in the political bloodstream, Davis has used Riordan's own record to open a gash in his opponent's credibility.

Just as former Gov. Pete Wilson did with his soft-on-crime attack on Kathleen Brown in April 1994, Davis has concluded that if the leading candidate in the other party's primary is going to ignore his opponents for the nomination and act as if the general election were underway, then it's time to take a stand against the would-be usurper.

Riordan, the Davis ad notes, "was the national chairman who raised $500,000 to put right-wing Judge Robert Bork on the Supreme Court" and gave money to Americans United for Life, the Right to Life League and to anti-abortion candidates (including Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby) "as recently as 2001."

"Is this a record we can trust?" the ad asks.


Riordan's response was not to challenge the facts of the ad but to put on the air a generic spot he had shot in anticipation of a Davis attack. In it, he says: "I believe in taking responsibility and being accountable. Unfortunately, Gov. Davis thinks differently. Instead of outlining his plans for our future, he has chosen to attack me personally."

Now, whether Riordan believes in taking responsibility and being accountable is not a provable assertion. But it's clear he's not particularly comfortable taking responsibility or being accountable for his contributions to the pro-life movement.

However, the assertion that Davis hasn't outlined his plans for the future but has instead attacked Riordan personally is false.

As governor, Davis has laid out a detailed plan for the future in four successive state budgets and he's shared his vision for the future in four State of the State addresses. Riordan may not like Davis' plans, but he can't say Davis hasn't spelled out a program.

Moreover, Davis has not attacked Riordan personally. He's attacked him politically. Riordan's stand on abortion rights--and his record--is an absolutely legitimate political concern for voters, especially women.

Given that Riordan once said he "strongly" agrees with the Catholic Church that "abortion is murder," voters might ask: When did Riordan conclude that abortion is not murder? Or does he support abortion today even though he still believes it is murder?

Is the new Davis ad negative? Well, despite the argument from the governor's advisors that it's factual, not negative, most dispassionate observers would say sure, it's negative. But it's not personal or out of bounds.

Up to now, Riordan had it both ways: He could proclaim that he's pro-choice on abortion, hoping to attract moderates and independents for November, without being attacked from the pro-choice Republican left. That's because his GOP opponents--Secretary of State Bill Jones and businessman Bill Simon--are pro-lifers.

He's had a free lunch. The Davis ad is the due bill. Time to pay up.

What we don't know about Riordan, who has never run in a bruising statewide, partisan race, is whether he can take the pressure of a campaign that presages taking over the second-biggest executive job in American politics.

It won't cut it to whine about personal attacks when your opponent pulls up your record and compares it with your campaign statements. That's when you've got to prove to voters that your record matches your rhetoric.

With a record of generous help for the pro-life movement in a state that's vehemently pro-choice, that will be quite a challenge for Riordan.

Poor Richard.

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