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

With Both Hopefuls Vulnerable, Turnout Is Key

As campaign enters the home stretch, Boxer and Fong each try to make the other the issue, underscoring their own weakness.

October 05, 1998|CATHLEEN DECKER and TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

With a month left before judgment day, both candidates for the U.S. Senate can make a reasonable argument that they will win. Both can point to polls backing them up. Yet neither, really, has a clue what will happen.

Rarely has an incumbent senator been in Democrat Barbara Boxer's shoes, entering the stretch run dead even, at best, with a challenger who began to advertise statewide only in the last few days.

Rarely has a challenger been in Republican Matt Fong's shoes, a beneficiary of the wacky political environment and broad distaste for the incumbent, but with hardly his name, much less his issue positions, known to Californians.

The unpredictability of it all has candidates, strategists and analysts of every stripe muttering the same mantra: "Turnout." According to the prevailing wisdom, the lower the turnout, the better for Fong and the worse for Boxer. Or, as Boxer said hopefully at a recent event: "Guess what: If everyone votes, we win."

Whoever wins, this week ushers in the real start of the Senate campaign. The candidates have been picked for months and have even debated once, but only now are both jostling for position on the television airwaves where California's elections are decided.

Boxer, her political career hanging in the balance, opened both barrels at state Treasurer Fong this week, blasting him for his opposition to new restrictions on assault weapons. Turning advertising orthodoxy on its head, she went negative before spending much time lathering up herself--a high-wire indication of the straits in which she finds herself, and of her campaign's heightened effort to define Fong before he defines himself.

Fong, trying to make his message as blandly inoffensive as possible, is introducing himself to Californians with a mom-and-apple-pie advertisement on education, the issue considered most pressing by voters. Hoping to broaden his constituency, he is airing versions of the ad in English, Spanish and two Chinese dialects. And he doesn't even mention Boxer--the better to freeze voter impressions of her and not risk having some rise to her defense.

Each is trying to make the other one the issue, which only underscores the weaknesses of both.

"What strikes me as so odd and most telling about the vulnerabilities is: Here's a campaign where the ad wars have not been engaged, the candidate back-and-forth has been fairly minimal and it's even," said Jennifer Duffy, who studies Senate and gubernatorial races for the Cook Political Report, which is based in Washington.

Boxer's difficulty is readily apparent. In a recent Times poll, she trailed Fong 48% to 43% among likely voters, a sharp indictment of an incumbent. Less surprisingly, she led 47% to 39% among registered voters, a reflection of Democratic strength on paper that often disappears on election day when only the most dependable voters show up.

When asked their impression of her, a third of registered voters said it was unfavorable, while half said it was positive. Fong, in comparison, was 40% favorable to only 14% unfavorable. The largest chunk of his supporters said they backed him because he is not Boxer.

But Boxer has always been a skin-of-her-teeth candidate, having eked her way into office in 1992 on President Clinton's and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein's coattails. She is also, in this race, a living exemplar of the political truism that you can't always predict the outcome by listening to the candidates.

On the stump, she is pointed, enthusiastic and disciplined enough to daily tick off her criticisms of Fong: He wants to raise the qualifying age for Medicare, believes the Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion was "wrongly decided" and would fail to support environmental protections.

More polished and effervescent than Fong, she gibes at his friends, characterizing him as a tool of controversial compatriots like former Reagan administration official Oliver North.

"You can tell something about people by their friends. . . . I've got Hillary, he's got Ollie," Boxer told her audience at a recent San Francisco fund-raiser that starred First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Boxer's strategists insist that Californians, a broad and diverse people living in a state that largely ignores politics, don't really dislike Boxer. Rather, they say, they simply do not know her, and thus will be willing to side with her if they buy her characterization of Fong.

"Until this week, all they really knew is that he was his mother's son," said Boxer strategist Roy Behr, referring to Fong's mother, March Fong Eu, California's longtime Democratic secretary of state.

Independent analysts suggest that, while Fong is largely an unknown quantity, it will not be easy for Boxer to define him on her terms without incurring some risk. Although negative attacks typically hurt the recipient, the acid also splashes back on the sender. And that is something Boxer can ill afford.

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