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Casting the California recall election

If Arnold bows out, Riordan could be GOP front-runner

From John Mercurio
CNN Political Editor

California Gov. Gray Davis faces voters in a October 7 recall election.
California Gov. Gray Davis faces voters in a October 7 recall election.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, the moderate Republican whom Democratic California Gov. Gray Davis targeted with $7 million in TV ads in last year's GOP gubernatorial primary, could be Davis' strongest threat in the October 7 recall election.

The 2002 race went according to Davis' plan: Riordan, who Davis feared could have posed a strong challenge in the general election, never overcame Davis' attacks and lost the primary to Bill Simon by 18 percentage points. Simon lost the general election to Davis by 5 points.

But little has gone Davis' way since. He now faces a recall election that could make him the second governor in U.S. history recalled from office. The other was North Dakota Gov. Lynn J. Frazier in 1921.

Although Riordan, 73, has not formally entered the race, he could be the GOP's strongest candidate, especially if actor Arnold Schwarzenegger bows out as expected.

A poll by the Los Angeles Times earlier this month indicated Riordan would be the most popular GOP candidate, with Schwarzenegger a close second and Simon a distant third.

Allan Hoffenblum, a GOP consultant who publishes the "California Target Book," said Riordan would benefit this time around because "he won't be running in a close primary and won't have to appease hard-core conservatives. And in a short race like this, name ID is going to be paramount."

But Hoffenblum noted that Riordan would still face one obstacle he struggled with in 2002.

"He ran two very good races for mayor of Los Angeles, but both campaigns were overwhelmingly dominated by Democratic political operatives," Hoffenblum said, referring to Clint Reilly and Bill Carrick, a close ally of Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

"Democrats are united against the recall, and those consultants won't be with [Riordan] in this."

Democratic Party officials have said they are unified behind Davis and that no Democrat would run to replace him.

U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, a conservative Republican and chief financier of the recall effort, is already running.

Simon took the first step toward running Tuesday, paying a filing fee for forms he must fill out to become a candidate. State Sen. Tom McClintock has filed papers to start raising money.

August 9 is the deadline to file candidacy papers with state election officials.

Schwarzenegger, a Riordan ally who also embraces their party's moderate wing, has started to back away, reportedly because of pressure from his wife, Maria Shriver, an NBC correspondent and niece of John F. Kennedy.

A spokesman said Schwarzenegger, who is returning this week from promoting his latest "Terminator" movie, could make an announcement as early as Wednesday, his 56th birthday.

With that in mind, there are signs the White House, which endorsed Riordan in the 2002 primary, is taking a renewed interest in the former L.A. mayor's political future.

Noelia Rodriguez, press secretary to first lady Laura Bush and Riordan's former close aide, spent Monday at Riordan's house in Brentwood, helping him assemble a possible campaign team, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.

While President Bush supported Riordan when he ran for governor, White House officials have kept their distance from the recall until now.

Meanwhile, another political soap opera is playing out in the California recall's three-ring circus.

Political commentator Arianna Huffington has said she might run for governor as an independent, but only if her ex-husband, former congressman Michael Huffington, a 1994 Senate candidate, does not.

"It would never be both Michael and myself running because as a mother you would understand that I would never put my children through this," she told CNN.

In a related development Tuesday, a federal judge in San Diego struck down a part of the California election code, a decision that could affect some voters in the recall election.

U.S. District Judge Barry Moskowitz declared unconstitutional a little-known statute stipulating that voters must register yes or no on the recall question or their vote on a replacement candidate would not be counted.

Voters in the October 7 election will have the option of voting or not voting on the question of removing Davis from office. Then they will be asked on the same ballot to vote for his successor if the recall is successful.

Attorneys for both Davis and recall organizers say the ruling will have no effect on the timing of the election.

Davis supporters say the ruling will allow voters disgusted with the whole recall process to abstain from voting on the recall itself, but still retain a vote on a replacement candidate if the recall succeeds.

The case was brought by two professors at the University of San Diego who contended the statute was unconstitutional.


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