MODESTO — Let's take a peek at that other big race, the big race that evidently is little noticed by the voters: The race for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination.
At stake is the second-most-powerful elective office that Californians have to fill. The incumbent, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, looks vulnerable, based on the latest polls that show her being supported by only around 40% of the state's voters. But nearly one-third of Republican voters still are undecided about whom their nominee should be.
This means a lot of people haven't been paying attention. If they've been paying attention to anything political, no doubt, it's this year's featured race, the shin-kicking contest for governor.
I caught up with the two major GOP Senate candidates this week in Modesto, a fast-growing San Joaquin Valley city of 180,000 that still retains its farm belt charm. Based on the polls, wealthy car alarm manufacturer Darrell Issa is leading state Treasurer Matt Fong in the valley, as he is in the state as a whole--by four to 12 points, depending on the survey.
There were a couple of interesting surprises here, including a preview of what could become a national campaign issue for Republicans. Call it "nukegate."
"I blame what's going on in India and Pakistan on the Clinton administration," Fong told roughly 20 contributors in the boardroom of a prominent law firm. "When Ronald Reagan was president, our word in foreign affairs meant something. Today it doesn't."
Fong is one of those politicians whose bland demeanor often mutes the dramatic points he's trying to make. And, true to form, he did not get much of a rise out of the Modesto donors as he tested, for the first time, his new issue.
In sum, Fong was blaming President Clinton's kid-gloves dealings with China--and America's selling to China of militarily useful technology--for scaring its border adversary, India, into nuclear testing. Also, Fong adds, America has supplied nuclear technology to India. The feared spinoff is that Pakistan--India's other border-enemy and a China ally--will also test nuclear weapons.
"Clinton has destabilized the region," Fong asserted later during an interview.
In the background are allegations about Chinese donations to Democrats during Clinton's reelection campaign.
"I wouldn't go so far at this point to say that Clinton sold out our national security for campaign contributions," Fong said. "But I think it's absolutely worth looking into [by Congress]."
Fong, however, isn't running against Clinton. And, in truth, his advisors aren't real wild about this issue. So what's Fong thinking?
He personally believes that foreign policy is certain to rise rapidly in the voters' consciousness and, as it does, his knowledge and seasoning will be preferred over Issa's political inexperience. "Issa's not ready for prime time," he said. And if he wins the nomination, Fong added, he'll use the issue to hammer Boxer, a strong defender of Clinton.
The next night, I drove to the Stanislaus County Republican headquarters to hear Issa speak to about 70 party activists. He didn't pound Clinton on China, but I noticed some local Republicans were all steamed up. One had posted on the wall a New York Times story about China's ties to Democratic fund-raising. Similar clippings were all over desks.
"A friend came in livid with the papers," reported Betty Woolley, the GOP office manager. "She said, 'We need to get the scumbag [Clinton].' The China money is very upsetting to people."
In these grass-roots, at least, there's an issue sprouting.
Issa and his advisors surprised me by talking candidly about the candidate's current "blooper" TV ad, a rather silly thing. They've said it's composed of filmed "outtakes"--discarded goofs.
The commercial begins with Issa saying, "You know, it's not easy filming these commercials." That opener, says ad maker Larry McCarthy, is the one part that's scripted. He insists this other immortal Issa line is not: "Oh, you got my nose."
Turns out, McCarthy admits, he also has used these blooper ads for other candidates in other states. "They were the most powerful spots," he says. "People get tired of regular spots. We're trying to break through the clutter and show the candidate as his natural self, show him laughing at himself."
Issa, wolfing down a burger in a fast-food restaurant, also said he wanted to distinguish himself from wealthy Democratic gubernatorial candidate Al Checchi. "He's not popular," Issa said, adding that voters are getting turned off by Checchi's negative ads.
That's another reason to pay attention to the Senate race: There are no negative ads. So far.