SAN JOSE — Secretary of State Bill Jones came out swinging in the first statewide debate of the Republican gubernatorial candidates.
He delivered stinging appraisals of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and of his opponents, former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan and businessman Bill Simon.
The debate provided the first taste for many voters of the trio of Republicans who want to challenge Democratic Gov. Gray Davis.
Jones boasted of his experience, Riordan his ability to delegate. Simon said he won’t raise taxes. And all three immediately and repeatedly criticized Davis Tuesday night in the hour-long debate at California State University, San Jose.
It was the first of three scheduled debates among the three candidates.
Wearing nearly identical dark suits, white shirts and red ties, the trio of candidates called Davis’ first term a “disaster” for California.
Jones trumpeted his experience as the only Republican holding statewide office in California and said he could best articulate Republican ideals, while Riordan has contributed to many Democratic campaigns.
Analysts have called Jones’ debate performance crucial, because he is lagging in the polls and unable to raise as much money as Riordan or Simon.
Touting authorship of the “Three Strikes” law and success in winning two statewide elections, he repeatedly challenged Riordan’s positions on solving the state’s energy and budget crisis.
“It’s not enough to say you are going to hire the best and the brightest,” Jones said, responding to Riordan’s declaration that he would delegate to help solve the state’s major problems.
On energy, Jones said to Riordan “you were busy trying to make sure that Los Angeles made as much money as it could off California.”
Riordan repeatedly said he would “empower” others to do the difficult work of state government.
“What I would do is bring the best and the brightest people that I could find in the world to help me solve those problems,” Riordan said.
For Simon, who has never run for public office, it was a chance to boost his visibility across the state and prove he can compete in a political debate.
Simon stressed the state’s failure to keep up with infrastructure needs, saying, “I notice we’re $175 billion behind in keeping our wonderful house of California in shape. We’ve got to take action now.”
Simon answered questions about his inexperience by repeatedly saying his experience as a prosecutor, businessman and philanthropist has prepared him to be governor.
“I’ve made a career of being a problem solver and a builder and I know that I can solve these problems,” Simon said.
But he also had to defend his voting record, noting that he missed voting during three of the last five primary elections.
“My track record is I voted in every general election,” he said.
The candidates each said that Davis has failed the leadership test.
Said Riordan, “In short, Gov. Davis has fumbled, fiddled and failed our state.”
“His procrastination and timidity are legendary,” Jones said of Davis.
The Davis campaign responded in kind Tuesday night.
“I think neither one of these guys have shown any indication they’re up to the job of governor,” said Davis press secretary Roger Salazar, who watched from a lecture hall near where the debate was held with members of the public. “It was like Larry, Curly and Moe up there.”
Jones also criticized Riordan — who said he was pro-abortion rights and supported providing public education and health care to some illegal immigrants — as too liberal for the party. Most observers had considered Riordan the most likely to blunder during the debate, and at times he seemed uncertain and forced to consult handwritten notes. But none of the three made any major gaffes.
Four out of 10 likely voters still haven’t decided whom they are going to support in the race, according to a recent Public Policy Institute of California poll. The Republican hopefuls also are trying to woo independent voters, who can vote for any party in the semi-open primary.
Tuesday’s debate was broadcast in all of California’s major markets. During the face-off, the candidates were seated, facing a panel of three Northern California journalists, rather than standing at the traditional podiums.
A second televised debate is scheduled for Feb. 13 in Long Beach. The three candidates also have agreed to debate on Feb. 9 at the state Republican Party convention in San Jose, but it will not be televised.
The primary winner will challenge Davis on Nov. 5.
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