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California and the West | CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / U.S.
SENATE

GOP Throws Weight Behind Fong's Race

Campaign to unseat Sen. Boxer is 'the No. 1 targeted race in the country' for Republicans, who are pledging a bonanza of financial and political support.

July 27, 1998|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Jack Kemp, Republican luminary and possible presidential contender, was reeling off compliments about state Treasurer Matt Fong, the party's nominee for U.S. Senate.

Hard-working, family man, military veteran, dedicated to government that is cost effective and innovative--all the standard stuff.

Kemp saved for last the biggest reason the faithful should donate their time and money to Fong's candidacy against Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer. "Matt Fong," Kemp enthused to a group at a hotel ballroom here, "is a 21st-century Republican."

After nearly being counted out just weeks ago in his primary fight against millionaire electronics whiz Darrell Issa, Fong is being promised a bonanza of financial and political support from the national party. Besides Kemp, major figures who have signed up for such efforts include House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

Not only is Fong said by top-level Republicans to be a good bet to knock off the incumbent, he also represents a chance for the GOP to shake its image as a retrograde party dominated by whites in an era of increasing racial diversity.

At a gathering of money men in Washington, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), co-chairman of the fund-raising arm of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, called the Fong campaign "the No. 1 targeted race in the country" for Republicans.

The committee may kick in $3 million, the maximum allowed under federal law. The Republican National Committee is preparing to spend an additional $4 million in California for Fong, gubernatorial candidate Dan Lungren and other statewide Republicans. That would be more than twice what the RNC spent in California in 1994--a year in which the party's millionaire Senate candidate, Michael Huffington, didn't need any outside money and no redistricting battles loomed as they do now.

The political landscape is different this season.

The party's Senate candidate can use all the money he can get, and the Republicans are eager to hold on to the California governorship, particularly as the state prepares to redraw lines for congressional districts, a process in which the governor is central.

The national committee money will be used for voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts to assist the entire ticket, officials said.

The Republicans also plan to pump resources into Senate races in Nevada, Illinois, Wisconsin and South Carolina--all involving Democratic incumbents viewed as vulnerable--but that support will be "dwarfed" by the support for Fong in giant California, said Steven Law, the senatorial committee's executive director.

Neither of the two GOP committees will make a final decision on spending allocations until after Labor Day, the traditional opening bell for fall campaigns, party officials said.

Dan Schnur, a strategist for the California Republican Party, said that if the national party were not convinced that Fong could beat Boxer, it would not consider spending millions on his behalf. For the same amount of money it takes to run a campaign in California, Schnur noted, the party could run Senate campaigns in three or four smaller states.

Fong spent a week this month working the Washington circuit of media, elected officials and political action committees. But he still has an uphill fight, moneywise.

Boxer holds a whopping lead in campaign contributions. As of the end of June, Boxer reported $3.9 million on hand; Fong a mere $215,000, although from May 14 to June 30, the period covered by the last federally required disclosure, Fong gathered $985,000 to Boxer's $799,000.

Most of Fong's contributions during that period were gobbled up by bills from his primary fight with Issa, but Fong's campaign insists that the upswing in contributions is proof that their candidate will be able to muster the $10 million his advisors think he will need to tussle with Boxer.

Not surprisingly, the Boxer camp dismisses such optimism as bravado. Roy Behr, Boxer's campaign spokesman, predicted that Republicans' own polls will show Boxer with a double-digit lead, giving them second thoughts about spending money on Fong rather than shifting resources to a state where the race is closer.

"Until you see the money, it's all talk," Behr said. "Even the talk, though, is a sign that the Republicans realize that Matt Fong has the weakest financial position of any Republican challenger in the country."

The promised help is based partly on the widely held view that Boxer's brand of liberalism is out of fashion and that she can be successfully labeled an extremist kook. That Boxer is an ardent supporter and shirttail relative of President Clinton makes her defeat even more delicious for Republicans to contemplate.

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