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California and the West | WASHINGTON CONNECTION / CATHLEEN
DECKER

GOP Gives Feinstein Words to Run By

November 10, 1998|CATHLEEN DECKER

Democrats, particularly Gov.-elect Gray Davis and reelected U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, have been the toast of national politics for the last week, slipping seamlessly from morning news shows to press conferences to enshrinement on the front pages of newspapers.

But not all of the election winners have been toasted publicly. At least one of them was not even on the ballot. You know her as California's senior U.S. senator, Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat--though that last detail might have been tough to discern.

Unfathomable as it will seem when she runs for reelection in two years, Feinstein spent the campaign being lionized by Republicans.

Matt Fong, the GOP nominee for Boxer's Senate seat, turned Feinstein-touting into a virtual cottage industry. "Dianne Feinstein is a Democrat, but she will work with Republicans," he said repeatedly.

When the Republican gubernatorial nominee, Dan Lungren, complained about Davis' smears, he cited three victims--himself, outgoing Gov. Pete Wilson and Feinstein.

Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, endorsing Fong, took pains to call Feinstein "a person who has done wonders for Los Angeles and the state."

All of the comely comments had a point, falling under the general rubric that everything is relative. Fong and Riordan praised Feinstein to emphasize their disdain for her Senate colleague Boxer. Lungren placed her in a pantheon of Republicans to make Davis sound like a bipartisan character assassin.

Intentions aside, the comments provoked smiles in the Feinstein camp, which is having a little fun thinking about using them in her next race. "It will present them with a bit of a problem," said Kam Kuwata, Feinstein's once and future campaign consultant.

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No one has to explain that to John McGraw, who becomes state Republican chairman in February.

"I'm not particularly enamored of that strategy," he said dryly in a recent interview. "It doesn't sound like a particularly wise idea for Republicans to be praising an incumbent Democrat."

Praise for Feinstein among Republicans is not new, although it surely became more public this year. High-ranking Republicans have been known to praise her privately, Riordan endorsed her in 1994, and she has consistently won support from moderate Republican voters. During her unsuccessful 1990 campaign for governor, she was derided by her own party as "a Republican in Democratic clothing."

"She has been a very cautious and a very deliberate senator, and her weaknesses--just from the standpoint of how you frame a campaign against her--her weaknesses have been few," said Ward Connerly, the state GOP's finance chairman and the leader of anti-affirmative action initiatives across the nation. But the praise, he added, was only meant to compare Feinstein and Boxer. "It was not saying 'We love Dianne.' "

Still, there is no denying that she does not raise Republican blood pressure the way Boxer does.

"Would I work hard to defeat her? Absolutely," said Michael DerManouel Jr., the GOP vice chairman for the Central Valley. "But you don't have the same passion, because of the personality clash that conservatives have with Boxer."

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Their massive losses Tuesday only underscore a looming question for Republicans: Just who among them will take on Feinstein?

For now, many Republicans loft the hope that she will not be on the ballot--either because she retires or because she is the Democratic vice presidential nominee. It gets tougher when they have to actually anoint a challenger.

One who is commonly mentioned, Connerly, says he will not run. Another on the wish list, U.S. Rep. David Dreier, this year becomes chairman of the Rules Committee, a post he is loath to give up for a chance to start over in the upper house. Another potential nominee, U.S. Rep. Christopher Cox of Newport Beach, most recently embroiled in a bid for House speaker, also has been reluctant to trade seniority for a Senate run.

Which leaves the mystery candidate, the year 2000 version of Michael Huffington, who nearly took Feinstein down in 1994 with almost $30 million of his own cash. Already, many conservatives hope that Darrell Issa, the self-funding millionaire who lost to Fong in the primary, will run.

There is one definite candidate, according to her campaign team, and that is Feinstein. Consultant Kuwata says that fund-raising for the race will begin soon, and the rest of the campaign structure is falling into place.

The Republican comments have only helped her standing among voters, he said.

"We will never have to utter--which we will of course do--all the stuff [they said] about Dianne," he said. "But the impression to voters is 'Look at these two senators: One has done a great job.' "

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