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Golding Seeks Higher Profile in Senate Race

Politics: GOP mayor of San Diego, little-known statewide, has shown more promise than results so far.

September 23, 1997|MARK Z. BARABAK | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

MENLO PARK, Calif. — As night falls on Sand Hill Road, Susan Golding faces an audience of venture capitalists, another seeker come to Silicon Valley's promised land.

Fading sunlight dapples the rolling countryside as Golding makes her pitch: the opportunity, the market niche, the payoff.

Countless supplicants and visionaries have made this pilgrimage to woo and win the gung-ho entrepreneurs who inhabit the woodsy office parks lining Sand Hill Road.

But Golding's pursuit is no start-up software company or newfangled Internet technology. The San Diego mayor is after a seat in the U.S. Senate, specifically the one held by Democrat Barbara Boxer.

Like many who come here shopping their grandiose schemes, seeking dollars to make their dreams reality, candidate Golding offers great promise but a good deal less in proven results.

Her fund-raising has been anemic and her statewide profile virtually nonexistent since she quietly entered the race, via faxed press release, last spring.

Troubling questions have surrounded her vaunted campaign team, acquired lock, stock and barrel from Gov. Pete Wilson's political operation.

Perhaps most difficult of all, "Nobody north of La Jolla has the foggiest idea who the mayor of San Diego is," said Republican strategist Allan Hoffenblum.

Still, despite all that, Golding continues to enjoy what many political insiders see as her singular advantage in the GOP primary--her perceived strength in the general election.

"I believe, against Boxer, that I'm the strongest candidate," Golding told the crowd of 30 high-tech executives, most of whom seemed to walk away impressed. "And I think she believes it too."

Articulate, experienced and--ever so crucial--poised in front of the TV cameras, Golding is the very reflection of the fiscally conservative, socially moderate swing voter that tends to decide California elections.

But first there is the matter of winning a competitive Republican primary for the chance to face Boxer in the fall of 1998. And many observers agree that Golding's performance to date has hardly matched her considerable potential.

"She needs to raise money, she needs to increase her name recognition and she needs to have a base of support. And I don't see much movement on any of those things, " said political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, echoing the private assessment of several strategists from both parties.

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Now in her second and final term as San Diego mayor, Golding, 52, is making her first run for statewide office after more than 15 often hurly-burly years in local politics.

One opponent, state Treasurer Matt Fong, has outperformed Golding in fund-raising by about 3 to 1, with nearly $1 million raised in the first six months of 1997. Her other opponent, millionaire businessman and political newcomer Darrell Issa, has already started tapping his considerable fortune to pay for a statewide radio advertising blitz.

Even so, Golding professes to be perfectly pleased with current circumstances. Brandishing a list of blue-chip endorsements, ranging from Republican stalwarts like Arco's Lodwrick Cook to cutting-edge entrepreneurs like Cisco Systems' John Chambers, Golding said, "People who are interested in the campaign at this point know who I am."

Indeed, for years the longtime protege of Gov. Wilson has been marked in Republican circles as a political comer. Her rising star approached supernova status during a widely acclaimed turn last summer as host mayor of the Republican National Convention. One New York City columnist, a bit giddy it would seem, even touted her for the No. 2 spot on the GOP ticket.

But reality came rushing back soon enough.

A bitter fight over expansion of the San Diego Chargers football stadium raged for weeks, jeopardizing Golding's statewide political ambitions until a deal--now highly controversial--was finally negotiated in January.

The mayor's enlistment of Wilson's celebrated campaign team, meanwhile, has hardly been the unalloyed triumph it once seemed.

Until recently, her chief consultant, George Gorton, seemed mostly focused on developing a made-for-TV movie about his exploits in last year's Russian presidential election. Potentially more damaging, the strategist expected to handle Golding's media campaign, Don Sipple, was the subject of wife-beating allegations published in August in Mother Jones magazine.

Sipple vehemently denies the allegations and has filed a libel suit against the magazine and the article's author. Golding said she did not know "the truth or falsity of the accusations" and Sipple's status with the campaign remains uncertain.

"If we seriously get to a point of making a [hiring] decision, yes, I will investigate," Golding said.

Still, as Jeffe put it, "Without judging the truth or non-truth of the charges, it creates baggage that she doesn't need."

As it is, even as Golding begins stepping up her visibility around the state, she seems to be struggling with the transition from her role at City Hall to stumping on a larger stage.

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