Can Poizner Come Back?
This morning’s Orange County Register has this report on Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner’s claim that he’s on the verge of pulling off “the biggest comeback in California history” and surprising frontrunner Meg Whitman in the upcoming Republican gubernatorial primary.
Says Poizner: “You’ve got to note the massive momentum in my direction. I have an excellent chance to win this.”
What he’s referring to is a tightening in the polls. Poizner trailed by nearly 50 points in the Field Poll of a month ago. An Action News/Survey USA poll released last week has him behind by “only” 22 points. Not exactly striking distance, but enough of a closing of the gap to talk about a comeback — and get the media to do the same.
And that, in turn, sends reporters scurrying to the memory vault — to the 2002 gubernatorial primary and the downfall of that year’s early odds-on-favorite, former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan.
In the fall of 2001, per the Field Poll, Riordan held a 41% lead over the relatively unknown Bill Simon. Once the votes were counted, Simon defeated Riordan by 18%, an astounding swing of nearly 60%.
So, with her debate with Poizner just days away, is Whitman set up to be this year’s Riordan?
I doubt it, and here’s why:
1) Riordan was under attack on more fronts than Whitman — from Simon, fellow gubernatorial hopeful Bill Jones, and incumbent Gov. Gray Davis, who feared going up against Riordan in the November election and thus spent millions in the primary to have Riordan rubbed out. Riordan wasn’t very good in his rapid response — for example, he missed a chance to link Simon and campaign contributions to former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. Whitman, by contrast has given as good as she’s received from Poizner and those pesky Democratic independent expenditure groups — and shows no signs of easing up on the attacks in the remaining month of this primary.
2) Riordan’s toughest opponent . . . was Riordan himself. Gray Davis’ campaign challenged Riordan’s pro-choice credentials — specifically, suggesting he was a flip-flopper by dredging up a tv interview in which Riordan likened abortion to murder. Riordan took the bait, as Team Davis hoped, by defending his moderate credentials and alienating conservative GOP primary voters. Riordan talked about abortion, and gay rights and brow-beat Republicans on the need for a centrist makeover — sorta like being invited to Thanksgiving dinner and lecturing the table on cruelty to turkeys. Whitman doesn’t have the same inconsistency problem, or the inclination to nag. Moreover, her ever-cautious campaign has steered her away from the conservative vs. moderate abyss.
3) Riordan’s style ran 180 degrees from Whitman’s. Ask anyone who worked in his gubernatorial effort. Riordan has done wonderful things for his fellow Angelenos as a mayor, business person, philanthropist and concerned citizen. But as a gubernatorial hopeful, he just didn’t have the same appetite or fire in the belly for state politics. And it showed. Whitman, by contrast, has taken a no-prisoners approach to her first run for public office: record spending, building a deep campaign team, and staying on message.
4) Poizner is not Bill Simon. Simon benefitted, in his race, from impeccable conservative credentials. While Poizner has positioned himself on the right — illegal immigration, in particular — it’s a complicated sell. Poizner can point to deeds that will delight conservative — his involvement in redistricting reform and killing a Democratic end-run on term limits. But, at the same time, he has to explain a past record that includes supporting a lower threshold for passing school bonds and writing a $10,ooo check (on his wife’s behalf) to Al Gore’s Florida recount effort.
Circle May 10 in your calendar. By that date, Poizner tells reporters, “I hope you’re writing a story, ‘This is an unbelievable horse race.’ By Election Day, I hope you’re writing the story, ‘The biggest comeback in the history of California politics.’”
Time will tell . . .