Riordan keeps focus on Davis in last GOP debate |

Riordan keeps focus on Davis in last GOP debate

ERICA WERNER. Associated Press Writer

LONG BEACH, Calif. (AP) — Republican gubernatorial front-runner Richard Riordan fought off his opponents’ attacks in the last GOP debate Wednesday night and assailed incumbent Democrat Gray Davis at every turn.

With the March 5 primary less than three weeks away, Secretary of State Bill Jones, the underdog in funding and polls, went after Riordan and Los Angeles investor Bill Simon.

Simon attacked Riordan and Davis.

Riordan, the former mayor of Los Angeles, avoided engaging with Jones and Simon. Instead he sought to keep the focus on the governor, whom he leads narrowly in polls.

“Gray Davis ought to be in Salt Lake City because he’s going downhill much faster than any of the other skiers,” Riordan said in his opening remarks. “Gray, you’re a disgrace. You get in your office about 11 a.m. every day. You dial for dollars all day long.”

As he has throughout the campaign, Riordan fielded questions during the hour-long debate at California State University, Long Beach about his moderate stances on issues like abortion and his contributions to Democrats.

Jones derided him as “just another big-city liberal mayor” whose inconsistent stances show he cannot be trusted. Jones, the GOP’s only statewide officeholder, focused on his own experience during years in politics and claimed he’s the only one of the three candidates who’s always been true to the Republican Party.

Simon also criticized Riordan “for being inconsistent on a number of issues.” He said he has held consistent stances throughout his career as a businessman and prosecutor, and insisted, “I am the conservative in this race.”

It’s a position Simon can lay increased claim to in the wake of last weekend’s state GOP convention, where he won a nonbinding straw poll of the party faithful.

Riordan was again asked to clarify his position on abortion. Davis launched ads three weeks ago attacking the ex-mayor on the issue, including one that shows a clip of a 1991 interview in which Riordan calls abortion “murder.”

“It was an emotional word. I have never thought in any legal sense that abortion is murder,” Riordan said in response to a panelists’ repeated questioning. “I strongly dislike abortion but just as strongly support the right of a woman to make her own choice.”

Riordan continued to insist the only way for Republicans to attract women voters and win statewide office is by supporting abortion rights.

“Pro-life or pro-choice, this is a shorthand way for women to say if somebody is not pro-choice, they are not pro-afterschool care, they are not pro day care for children, they are not pro-health care,” Riordan said. “There is no way that a Republican can win in this state unless they respect women who are pro-choice.”

Jones and Simon immediately objected that Riordan was implying they don’t care about women.

“This is the first time I’ve heard that someone who’s pro-life can’t be pro-kids,” Simon said. “Actually I think it’s the other way around.”

Jones was forced to defend releasing a letter earlier this week from the head of the Maryland GOP complaining that Riordan’s wife was raising money for Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a likely Democratic candidate for governor.

“It is a fair issue, especially given Dick’s background in giving to all these Democrats,” Jones said.

“Mr. Jones, what you said the other day was pathetic, and your explanation today was even more pathetic,” Riordan shot back.

Simon, who seemed tentative in the first debate, Jan. 22 in San Jose, seemed much stronger Wednesday, but Jones and Riordan appeared confident too.

“It was a long-shot opportunity for dramatic gestures and dramatic mistakes and I don’t think we saw either,” said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College.

Davis press secretary Roger Salazar shrugged off the attacks from Riordan, though the unusual barrage of preprimary ads Davis has launched against Riordan suggest the governor believes Riordan will be his opponent in November.

“We’re not afraid of anybody; we’ll take any one of these candidate and beat them handily,” Salazar said.

Wednesday night’s debate was televised statewide, as was the first debate last month. There was another debate at last weekend’s state GOP convention, but it was not televised. The debate Wednesday was produced by the California Broadcasters Association in conjunction with the CSU system.

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