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DECISION '98 / THE FINAL COUNT

Boxer Vows She'll Press Ahead With Her Key Issues

U.S. Senate: She says Tuesday's decisive victory shows voters want action on a patients rights bill, a raise in minimum wage, protection of abortion rights and increased gun controls.

November 05, 1998|TONY PERRY and AMY PYLE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A jubilant Sen. Barbara Boxer said Wednesday that she is eager to get back to Washington and plunge back into the social and environmental issues that have become her political trademark.

"People very much want their issues addressed," Boxer said. "They very much want us to go back to work."

Meeting reporters after her decisive 53%-43% victory over Republican candidate Matt Fong, Boxer sidestepped all suggestions that she might consider toning down her often combative style or broadening her range of issues to shake the image, fostered by her opponents, that she is a narrowly focused liberal.

In fact, just the opposite was true.

Boxer and her strategists said they hope her victory puts an end to the Republican mantra--often echoed by preelection pundits--that Boxer is so "divisive" and loaded down with such negative ratings in public opinion polls that she would forever be an imperiled incumbent.

"I think people are saying, 'We're with you Barbara,' " Boxer said in San Francisco. "I'm going to go back and get that patients rights bill done, raise the minimum wage, protect a woman's right to choose, and increase gun controls."

Rose Kapolczynski, Boxer's campaign manager, said: "When I first met Barbara Boxer in 1992, she told me that in politics you have to be yourself. I wouldn't look for a new Barbara Boxer after a victory like this."

UC San Diego political science professor Gary Jacobson, an expert on congressional elections, concurred. The 57-year-old senator would have difficulty making much of a change in her image "without losing her basic appeal to her political base," he said.

Fong bemoaned the lack of financial support from the national Republican Party and the party's lack of a "national issues agenda." He also was surprised by Boxer's fund-raising ability and what he saw as a backlash by GOP voters against Republican handling of the investigation of President Clinton.

"I got hit by a wave that started in the East and swept over the West," a red-eyed Fong said after his brief but emotional concession speech.

Fong declined to say whether he would make another run for public office. Other Republicans, however, doubt the state treasurer will walk away from politics.

Both camps agreed that the turning point in the campaign occurred after Sept. 21, when Congress released the videotape of Clinton's grand jury testimony in the Monica Lewinsky matter.

Until then, "we had had a flood of Monica, and all of a sudden the rain stopped and we got questions from reporters about issues," said Kapolczynski. "We knew if we could keep the campaign on issues, we'd be all right."

Fong pollster Steve Kinney said Fong was surging in the polls and appeared on the verge of defeating Boxer until the videotape was released. Suddenly the public mood shifted.

"The tape energized Democrats to turn out and vote and defend their own," Kinney said. "We saw no similar passion among Republicans about the Clinton [impeachment] thing."

Fong's political consultant Sal Russo said Fong also was hurt by the poor showing of Republican gubernatorial nominee Dan Lungren.

Boxer said she and Gray Davis, who defeated Lungren in a runaway, brought strengths to the ticket that complemented each other.

"[Davis'] base of support is Southern California; mine is Northern California," Boxer said. "My base is pro-choice women and environmentalists; his is teachers and unions. . . . When we got together it was like Katie-bar-the-door!"

Boxer's camp had argued from the beginning of the campaign that as soon as their candidate began television advertising, her standing in the polls would rise. Aides had argued that because Boxer has gotten little television coverage in her six years in Washington, her public image was stuck on her bruising campaign against Republican Bruce Herschensohn in 1992.

In September, Boxer unleashed a multimillion-dollar blitz that both reintroduced her to the electorate and "defined" Fong as a political extremist.

In the glow of victory, campaign spokesman Roy Behr resisted the urge to say I told you so, but only slightly. "Barbara Boxer was the candidate who represented mainstream views in this state," he said.

Although Fong and Boxer agreed on few if any issues during the election, they agreed on how to relax after a grueling campaign: Both left with their families for vacations in Hawaii.

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