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

Outsider vs. Insiders at GOP Forum

Boxer's challengers give preview of primary fight that includes millionaire entrepreneur and two veteran officeholders.

March 20, 1998|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAGUNA HILLS — In terms that were civil but unequivocal, the GOP hopefuls for U.S. Senate provided a glimpse Thursday of their upcoming primary fight: a riled-up millionaire outsider vs. two savvy political insiders.

Speaking to an Orange County women's group, car alarm manufacturer Darrell Issa criticized government as wasteful, ignorant and dominated by special interests. He repeated his assertion that, unlike his rivals, he is looking for a "better America," not just a better job.

"I think the people of California have had enough of sending career politicians [to Washington]," Issa told a luncheon gathering of the Conservative Women's Leadership Assn. of South Orange County.

Issa's opponents, state Treasurer Matt Fong and U.S. Rep. Frank Riggs (R-Windsor), insisted that government can work if conservative principles are triumphant. And both expressed annoyance at Issa's rhetoric.

"I bristle a little bit when a very glib person gets up and makes backhanded comments about career politicians," said Riggs, noting the long days he spends in the service of his constituents.

Fong called Issa a bored businessmen who is using his fortune to try to get a job for which he has no experience. He suggested that Issa has misjudged the public mood--that this is not 1994, when anti-government rhetoric swept Republicans into power.

Fong said his experience as "chief financial officer" for California will carry "far more resonance and appeal than an angry, outsider millionaire."

The clash came as a Field poll showed Issa leading Fong and Riggs, a late entry into the derby. The luncheon was the second head-to-head confrontation among the three candidates seeking to oppose Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer.

Among all likely voters, Boxer polled 43%, Issa 15%, Fong 12% and Riggs 4%, with 5% listed as supporting "others" and 21% undecided. A Field poll in November had Issa at 6% and Fong at 14%.

The Issa camp immediately boasted that his rise in the Field poll was proof that his message about limited government and increased defense spending is beginning to take hold.

To the Orange County group, Issa said his experience in business has taught him that government is a hindrance to economic growth. "Government never creates jobs," he said. "Government is normally in the way."

Asked about the poll, Fong said Issa is only enjoying the natural rise in name identification that comes from having spent millions of dollars in television advertising. Fong and Riggs have not advertised on television.

While Issa has been buying television time for advertisements in English and Spanish touting his military service and his business success, Fong has been tending to his chores as state treasurer and attempting to raise campaign money for television commercials of his own.

But Fong has also been snared in a fund-raising controversy over contributions from individuals with ties to China. In 1997 Fong returned $100,000 in contributions from Indonesian businessman Ted Sioeng and his family after allegations were made that Sioeng is an agent of the Chinese government, which he denies.

This month, however, a report issued by Senate Democrats highlighted the Sioeng contribution to Fong, while attempting to downplay the fact that Sioeng made even larger contributions to the Democratic National Committee.

The Fong camp charged that the Democratic report was a "petty, misleading, shameless" attempt to help Boxer's reelection chances by smearing Fong.

One indication of whether the contribution flap has damaged Fong's Senate campaign will come next month, when fund-raising reports are revealed. Without money to flood television with commercials--by one estimate, it costs $1 million to make sure voters see a particular commercial--any statewide candidate is at a disadvantage.

In this early stage of the campaign, Issa has preferred broad rhetorical strokes about government as a detriment to personal initiative. A common stump speech line asserts that the out-of-touch "Beltway mentality" is ruining America.

By comparison, Fong has shown his devotion to details in issuing policy statements on tax reform, biological warfare, Swiss bankers and funds of Holocaust victims and survivors, among other topics. On Thursday, he talked about industrial development bonds, enterprise zones and Title I funding for education.

Riggs, a three-term congressman from the state's northwest corner, is the only one of the three with Washington experience. "I can do the job from Day 1," he said. "I don't need anyone to show me around."

As a last-minute entry, his campaign is cash-shy, and he has devoted much of his efforts to fund-raising, particularly among agricultural interests and members of the National Rifle Assn.

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