But William Simon Jr., a businessman, former federal prosecutor and son of a Nixon-Ford Cabinet official, seems on the verge of upsetting the frontrunner.
With some assistance from the Democratic Governor Gray Davis' intervention in the Republican primary, Riordan's once-insurmountable 41-point lead has vanished in every poll.
Veteran LA Times columnist George Skelton called it "the most incredible come-from-behind race --- and the worst fall-on your-face stumble --- in modern California politics." While Riordan or the other Republican, Secretary of State Bill Jones, could still win on a three-way split, the real story of the primary has been Simon.
The former Los Angeles mayor had entered the GOP race for governor with the blessing of the Bush White House.
Riordan's proven appeal to Democrats and Independents seemed just what the doctor ordered for an ailing party that had suffered a string of humiliating defeats in the last decade. The Watts riot in 1965 sparked Ronald Reagan's stunning landslide a year later and started a conservative era in the nation's most populous state. From 1966 through the end of the Cold War with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Republicans won two-thirds of all races for president, governor and U.S. Senate, including six straight presidential victories.
California's Democrats only had one really good year during that timeframe, when Jerry Brown was elected governor in 1974, the Watergate year.
But the end of the Cold War shut down the Southern California aerospace industry costing the state thousands of middle class jobs. Many older white voters retired to other Western states and were replaced by working class Hispanics mobilized in response to the immigrant-bashing Proposition 187.
The California GOP quickly lost its edge. The rise of Bill Clinton coincided with the revival of local Democrats. For five election cycles, from 1992 to 2000, Clinton was the titular head of the Democratic Party. In four of those five cycles, Democrats won the Golden State by over a million votes, including a 53-42 percent win for Al Gore over President Bush in 2000 that provided Gore's entire margin in the national popular vote. As late as 1994, conservatives outnumbered liberals by nearly 2-1 among all California voters. In 2000, there were nearly equal numbers of conservatives and liberals.
Dick Riordan got off to a strong start last fall. The Field Poll (the local equivalent of Gallup) gave him a huge 46-19 percent lead over Jones, with Simon at 5 percent. Republicans had a highly favorable image of the mayor at 51-16 percent positive. Only about one-fourth of Republicans had heard of Simon as voters gave him a 16-7 percent favorable rating. (Jones was also mostly unknown).
Early ads for Riordan portrayed him as a non-partisan problem-solver. His ads did not even mention that he was a Republican. Some conservatives in Los Angeles labeled Riordan "RINO," for "Republican in Name Only," because he appointed mostly Democrats to municipal office. This may have been a wise strategy for the fall campaign where Republicans are only 35 percent of the voters and with Riordan leading Davis by modest margins.
But grumbling started almost immediately within Republican ranks that Riordan was taking conservatives for granted. Former GOP Governor George Deukmejian, remembering Riordan's past support for his opponents, led the charge against Riordan, saying he wouldn't vote for him under any circumstance.
Enter Davis, who clearly feared Riordan as his toughest opponent. He unleashed a barrage of anti-Riordan ads using conservative "hot-button" issues, claiming Riordan had flip-flopped on abortion, gay rights, taxes and gun control. Davis spent $8 million attacking Riordan, more than Simon and Jones combined.
Timm Herdt of the Ventura County Star noticed that Simon resembles Clark Kent. Well, Simon has gotten help from a political Superman, Rudy Giuliani. Fresh from dragging billionaire rookie Mike Bloomberg across the line in the New York City mayor's race, Time magazine's "Person of the Year" flew into California to stump for Simon. After the Sept. 11 tragedy, the mayor's poll ratings soared to 90 percent in New York. Amazingly, since California rarely follows trends (it usually starts them), a January Field Poll showed that California voters approved of Rudy by the astonishing figure of 83-6 percent -- a 14-1 ratio. (All of which means Republicans should put him on a national ticket someday).
During the mid-1980s, Giuliani served as a federal prosecutor in New York, making national headlines as a crime-buster, and Simon was one of his colleagues. In January, Simon began running ads with Rudy extolling his former employee's dedication and work on cases involving some of "the toughest organized crime families and the worst corporate polluters."
Simon's support began to rise almost immediately from 5 percent in December to 13 percent in January and peaking at 37 percent in late February. When a wealthy man runs for office the first time, he almost has to run as a statesman. Otherwise, he risks coming across as a pushy, arrogant millionaire trying to buy the office. Rudy's support cast Simon as an honorable public servant, not just another rich wannabe.
Riordan bragged about his bi-partisan campaign team, but he probably hired the wrong Democrats -- Clint Reilly who helped Katherine Brown blow a big lead in the 1994 governor's race, Susan Estrich who watched Michael Dukakis blow a 17-point lead in 1988, and pollster Patrick Caddell who hasn't done much right since helping Jimmy Carter win in 1976.
The other mistake Team Riordan made was fighting the last war -- in 1998, California had an open primary where voters could choose candidates regardless of party. The rules have been changed for 2002, so only independents can crossover into Republican primaries, not Democrats.
Besides the Giuliani endorsement and Davis' pounding of Riordan, the strength of conservatives within California Republican circles is behind Simon's rise. He and his handlers were experienced enough to realize that building a base on the right was critical to a newcomer.
Accordingly, Simon sought and won endorsements from right-to-life activists, the Gun Owners of California and anti-tax groups. The Conservative "movement" founding father William F. Buckley warmly endorsed him in the spring of 2001 as he slowly built a following among conservative "cause" voters. The Field Poll showed that fully 65 percent of likely GOP primary voters were self-identified conservatives (41 percent "strongly" conservative, 24 percent "moderately" conservative). Simon was carrying the staunch conservatives by nearly 2-1, while splitting the moderate conservatives with Riordan. Riordan had a solid lead among the moderates, but they are only a third of GOP voters.
Riordan's "electability" argument doesn't appear to be working either. The latest LA Times poll says Republicans by 52-40 percent want a nominee who espouses conservative principles rather than the more electable candidate.
It's not over for Riordan yet. Moderate Republicans could account for about 40 percent of likely primary voters if the turnout is high. Should Simon and Jones split the majority conservative vote about equally, Riordan could still sneak through a plurality. Bill Jones could even win if both Simon and Riordan divide the metropolitan vote, leaving Jones ahead in rural California. But Jones probably lacks the resources to get his message out and, if he collapses to less than 15 percent, expect Simon to win.
As for the fall, Davis still has to be considered a mild favorite because no incumbent governor has lost after just one term since 1942 and he also has raised over $30 million with a battle-tested, relentless team of consultants led by Garry South. (Their takedown of Riordan in the Republican primary proves that they still know how to play for keeps).
Davis is undeniably closer to the center of public opinion on most issues. Indeed, Simon looks ideologically a lot like Dan Lundgren, whom Davis trounced in 1998.
The key question is whether Simon can win over moderate independent voters (roughly 20 percent of the electorate) and cut into normally Democratic Hispanics (15 percent of all voters).
These questions won't likely be answered by the primary on Tuesday, as those two groups don't usually participate in Republican primaries. But if Simon avoids mistakes and keeps up the momentum with more help from the Giuliani magic, all bets are off. (Patrick Reddy is a consultant to California's Assembly Democrats.)