Customized to California?

He's been called the harbinger of a "New Republicanism," a West Coast Michael Bloomberg who can customize the GOP for a Democratic California much as Bloomberg has for a Democratic New York. But for all the hype and hope that's been invested in Richard Riordan, the former Los Angeles mayor who's trying to eke out a victory in the March 5 Republican gubernatorial primary, his stumblebum campaign has revealed a candidate who has trouble defining himself, let alone redefining Republicanism.

Consider, for instance, this tableau of Riordan in action. It's late January, on the last leg of Riordan's "Tough Enough to Turn California Around" two-day buscapade through Northern California and the Central Valley. The bus itself is stunning (once leased by Dennis Rodman, it comes complete with plush black-leather furnishings, black-marble flooring, and mirrored ceilings); but there's trouble in paradise. Riordan is reeling from news of a fresh wave of ads from Democratic Governor Gray Davis that attack his record, and suddenly he erupts in screaming anger at a Los Angeles Times reporter, in full view of the rest of the traveling press corps.

"I don't want to talk to you ever again!" he shouts at the dumbfounded journalist. "Just get out of here now! Do you understand?" As the bus is moving at some 65 miles per hour, reporter Carla Hall -- who had asked Riordan about the death of his daughter from an eating disorder -- is unable to comply. As Riordan makes his way up the aisle to his seat in the front of the bus, the pain in his eyes is evident. But this is hardly the image of a candidate in control of himself -- not to mention the state he aspires to lead.

Indeed, the campaign was just then beginning to slip out of his control. Earlier that day, his campaign manager Ron Hartwig had informed him of some surprising and bad news. Governor Davis, whose polling numbers slipped precipitously in the wake of his tardy handling of the Golden State's electric-power crisis the year previous -- and who just a few days earlier had launched an anti-Riordan TV ad assailing the superrich 71-year-old corporate-lawyer-turned-leveraged-buyout-artist-turned-mayor for espousing pro-choice views on abortion just two years after contributing to anti-abortion groups --had now gone on the air with not one but two more attack ads.

"What is Davis doing?" Riordan asked this writer, then sitting directly across from him on the bus. "Is he trying to defeat me in the Republican primary?"

In fact, he was -- or, more modestly, at least ensure that Riordan would do no better than stagger out of the primary.

On the day of the bus-ride blowup, Riordan led the embattled Davis in general-election matchup polling by 8 points. His lead over his seemingly hapless Republican-primary rivals -- investor and political novice Bill Simon, Jr. (son of Nixon's treasury secretary) and lackluster California Secretary of State Bill Jones -- was nothing short of stratospheric.

Today, all that has changed. After a series of relentless Davis attack ads and the altered press coverage in the wake of the gaffe-strewn bus tour, Riordan now trails the Democratic governor in private polls. Worse, his daunting Republican-primary lead evaporated in late preprimary polling. No longer able to float above the fray, Riordan is in a desperate fight with the Democrat he hopes to unseat and the two Republicans who have taken dead aim at his hopes to do so.

Davis himself has been quite clear as to his purpose. A few days before launching the first of his three anti-Riordan ads, the governor told me: "This guy is floating above it all. That's going to change. Did you see the [January 23 Republican gubernatorial] debate last night? Riordan's opponents aren't making a dent." So Davis stepped in.

The governor's goal was twofold: Make Riordan appear too liberal (by having to defend his pro-choice positions) for the hard-core conservatives who still dominate the state's Republican base, and make him seem too Republican for the independents and Democrats who had grown exasperated with Davis. The hard-right candidate who's been rising in the polls since Davis intervened is Simon, a darling of the right-wing-think-tank circuit who is politically indistinguishable from Dan Lungren, the GOP conservative whom Davis beat by a full 20 points to win the governorship in 1998. And even if Simon can't overtake Riordan, Davis has already pealed away much of Riordan's potential centrist support in a November runoff.

The issue that Davis has had the most traction with is abortion, where Riordan's pro-choice positions are at odds with his anti-choice past. It's an attack that Riordan hasn't yet figured how to counter. Attempting to refute one Davis ad pointing out that he'd actually given money to anti-abortion groups, Riordan's voice quavered as he sought to explain the contradiction.

"Yes, I did give the money," he said. "But that was put before the voters of Los Angeles in 1993 [when he was first elected mayor], and they believed that I was and am pro-choice." Asked if his views had evolved, a scenario that could explain why he would support the anti-choice cause in 1991 and the pro-choice cause in 1993, Riordan didn't give a direct answer. "I've given over $30 million to charities around the country," he noted. "I can't remember everything I did."

According to Garry South, Davis's longtime consigliere, the abortion attack ads have driven Riordan's negatives sky-high in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Riordan had exhibited surprising strength, and have sharply diminished his support among Democrats and independents. The only area of the state where the ads haven't significantly shifted public sentiment is Los Angeles, where Riordan's record as a social moderate is hard to dispel.

"Gray Davis is a very desperate man," charges Riordan. "He doesn't want to talk about the future of this state. He just wants to distract the voters from his record." But for all Riordan's hints that he prefers to focus on a vision of California's future, his vision seems more about having a vision than presenting one.

His campaign scheduled no tent-pole major policy speeches. And for all of Riordan's talk of replicating his Los Angeles technique of bringing successful outsiders in to jump-start moldy municipal institutions -- as he did at the school district and the transportation authority -- he created just one campaign policy task force. That group, on economic policy, consists only of its two co-chairs, former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz and former "Bush 41" economic adviser Michael Boskin, both now at Riordan's favored intellectual watering hole, Palo Alto's Hoover Institution. No other task force members have been named.

As the dynamic duo of Shultz and Boskin suggests, there's a limit to the newness of Riordan's new Republicanism. He is a genuine social liberal on issues like reproductive choice, gay rights, and domestic-partner legislation; that became clear during his tenure as mayor. And on the campaign trail, he has taken one step to Davis's left on an economic issue by calling for a faster expansion of the state's Healthy Families program for children of the working poor, which Davis declined to expand in his new state budget.

But Riordan's record as mayor shows him to have been consistently opposed to legislation designed to help the poor. He vetoed the city's groundbreaking living-wage ordinance, though the city council then overrode his veto. He insisted that the city had no valid role in addressing Los Angeles's stunning shortage of affordable housing (according to the Census Bureau, Southern California is the most overcrowded place in the land), occasionally even denying the existence of the shortage. During the electric-deregulation mania of the mid-1990s, he briefly tried to privatize the city's sterling municipal water-and-power company; he also flirted with selling off Los Angeles's central public library to the famously bibliophiliac Philip Morris Company. And Riordan was at all times an inflexible defender of the legendarily inflexible L.A. Police Department -- appointing and defending a martinet chief who refused to implement a tracking program for violent officers and fighting federal oversight of the department in the wake of a massive scandal of police abuse in immigrant communities. He is, in sum, a far more conventional Republican than Michael Bloomberg is -- though far more socially moderate (and thus electable) than most of the candidates whom California Republicans trot out before an increasingly Democratic electorate.

Which is why the White House has been promoting Riordan's candidacy from the outset. Bush's California campaign chairman, L.A. mega-investor Gerald Parsky, has been installed by Karl Rove as the de facto adult supervisor for the state's famously fractious GOP, and as such he is formally neutral in the race. But it was impossible to miss Parsky's dismay at January's state GOP convention when former Governor George Deukmejian, a darling of the right, announced that he had "no respect" for Riordan and would sooner vote for Davis if it came to that. (Riordan had contributed to Deukmejian's 1982 Democratic gubernatorial opponent, Tom Bradley.) And when Riordan then provoked a chorus of groans and boos in the packed hall of GOP delegates by insulting Deukmejian -- who'd reached the age, said Riordan, where "all he remembers is his grudges" -- Parsky just grinned ruefully and noted: "That's Dick."

And that's the problem. Affable and recognizably human (in clear contrast, in both instances, to Davis), but also stumbling in public, explosive in private, and critically unable to bridge the huge gap between California's isolated Republican right and its majority Democratic-independent voting bloc, Richard Riordan may not be the answer to Karl Rove's prayers after all.