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A Comment Davis Won't Let Riordan Forget

January 31, 2002|George Skelton

SACRAMENTO — SACRAMENTO

Gov. Gray Davis is all over TV with an ad blistering Richard Riordan about abortion, and political junkies are asking why. Why attack so soon when the November election is still eight months away?

Davis has many reasons, including the fact that hitting Riordan on abortion is plain irresistible.

The former L.A. mayor is campaigning for governor as an enlightened Republican who favors abortion rights. "I'm pro-choice," he says repeatedly. "I strongly support the right of women to make their own decision with respect to their bodies."

The GOP "will turn from an endangered species into an extinct species," he asserts, unless it becomes "inclusive" and accepts people of wide-ranging views--including the majority who support abortion rights.

So with this backdrop, it's easy to understand why Davis couldn't resist smacking Riordan after he watched an old TV interview of Riordan calling abortion "murder."

Riordan did the interview for a Westside cable station in the spring of '91, two years before he ran for mayor. The megabucks businessman and civic activist was asked by interviewer Lauren Steiner whether he had any quarrel with his Catholic Church. He disagreed with the church's "socialistic" views on economics, Riordan said.

But he added: "Abortion and things like that, I agree with the church. Abortion, I agree very strongly. In fact, being fairly liberal-minded, I surprise myself at my emotions on the abortion issue because I feel very--I think it's murder."

Davis' campaign advisors showed that tape to focus groups. "I've never seen a clip of someone as devastating," says chief strategist Garry South. "What kills people is when he says, 'I'm fairly liberal-minded,' but agrees with the church that abortion is murder.

"When women see this, they say, 'If he were conservative and had come around, I could accept this.'"

That tape isn't running in the current TV ad. But you can bet it will in some future Davis spot.

*

The current commercial points out that Riordan has contributed many thousands of dollars to "pro-life" candidates who oppose abortion rights. He raised $500,000 in a failed attempt to win Senate confirmation of antiabortion Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork in 1987. He also donated to other antiabortion groups before he was mayor.

"You can go back over somebody's life and prove anything you want," Riordan told reporters Monday.

That's the start of a response, but Riordan needs to be more upfront. And about the worst possible answer is the one he gave reporters Monday, which essentially was: Californians needn't concern themselves with this, because L.A. voters already have decided it's irrelevant.

"That issue was in front of the voters when I was elected mayor," he protested. "All the voters had those facts.... They believed me, they trusted me.... They knew I was pro-choice."

Mayor, here's a little political primer: The impact of L.A. city voters on your political aspirations has dramatically diminished. They account for only 10% of the state's registered voters; indeed only 6% of the Republican voters.

And the other 90%--or 94%--have not as yet delegated Angelenos to make decisions for them.

*

If you're Davis and South, you don't sit on these gift weapons. You use them while they're potent, before Riordan can weaken their effectiveness by publicly explaining himself.

And while you're at it, you also let fly other ads--attacking Riordan about rising L.A. crime and gouging the state on energy.

Why now? If you're Davis, you've:

* Given up on anybody beating Riordan in the Republican primary. You've got to slow your opponent's momentum and undermine his general election support among moderates, the voter base you covet. It matters little that you help Riordan with GOP conservatives by making him more acceptable on abortion.

* Offered the other GOP candidates a way to attack Riordan's credibility, if they're smart enough to see it. Just steal from your ad: "Where does Richard Riordan really stand.... Is this a record we can trust?"

* Made sure abortion is an issue, after all. It's a powerful Democratic weapon in California. Riordan can't neutralize it merely by being pro-choice.

* Sent this message to voters: You may not especially like me, but the other guy is goofy.

Right now, Davis and Riordan are running even, according to the Times Poll.

For Riordan not to fall back, he'll need to explain why he believes abortion is murder, but still should be legal. This shouldn't be that hard. It's about religious beliefs and individual choice. Inclusion.

But all those donations to right-to-lifers? That may require a political mea culpa.

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