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

Boxer's Style Matches Her Name; Fong Stays Low-Key Even on Attack

October 05, 1998|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Call it the politics of compassion versus the politics of analysis. The battle of the orator and the wonk.

U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer and state Treasurer Matt Fong, running neck and neck in recent opinion polls, are a study in opposing campaign styles. To the passionate incumbent, politics is a crusade; to the donnish challenger, it is a kind of open tutorial.

A Boxer stump speech is a political call to arms: high-voltage, uncompromising. She jokes, she chides, she lampoons her opponent--and then moves in for the kill. Her voice and sense of urgency can fill a room.

"Five more [Republican] votes in the Senate and there will be no more rights for working people," she roared to a labor union convention in Gardena. "That's why my race has been targeted. . . . They want my vote, and they want my voice silenced."

She bashes the Republican-controlled Congress, accusing it of wallowing in the White House sex scandal, and lashes into Fong with a fury. At the opening of a Democratic headquarters in the Crenshaw district, she had the audience chanting, "Fong is wrong."

She can do a Jesse Jackson-style riff: "We need to strategize, we need to organize, we need to socialize with our friends. We need to vote."

And she routinely tells her audiences that Fong simply does not care about them. His opposition to raising the minimum wage is a favorite target.

"Mr. Fong, where is your compassion?" Boxer asked at a Democratic rally in Oakland. "We need compassion for people who get up every morning, get their hands dirty and earn minimum wage."

At a gospel celebration Sunday at San Francisco's famed Glide Memorial United Methodist Church, Boxer told the packed house, "To me, compassion is always in fashion. We're going to find out soon if the people agree."

Boxer knows that she needs to generate excitement among the Democratic faithful. With little else on the ballot to raise their temperatures, she has been busy organizing her own parade, hurrying back to California every Friday when Congress breaks for the weekend. She thinks her rhetoric is working.

"People are getting mad," she told reporters during one weekend of rally-hopping in Los Angeles. "That's good for me."

Excitement is not a regular feature of Fong's campaign appearances. His camp is organized and punctual, but the candidate is not a rouser.

His speeches read tougher than they sound. Sometimes he balks at his staff's urging to come out swinging.

His stump delivery is calm and serious, but no one goes home whistling the theme song. Even when accusing Boxer of endangering national security or driving business to bankruptcy, he is low-key. A restaurant patron sending back an undercooked steak displays more fire.

"Barbara Boxer is a very nice lady, but she and I have totally different visions on where this government should go," Fong told a fund-raising dinner in Clovis, outside Fresno. It's about as fierce as he gets.

Much of his standard speech seems to presuppose a huge reservoir of anti-Boxer feeling in his audience.

He told a gathering at a Temecula country club that when he went to Washington to meet with political action committee groups, they nearly threw money at him without even asking where he stands on issues. That he is anti-Boxer was enough.

"In Washington, D.C., I kind of got my feelings hurt," Fong said. "Some of the PAC committees came up and said, 'You don't have to give a speech. Hell, put a bag over your head and we'll give you money' " to beat the incumbent.

Boxer likes to incite her audiences with references to her ideological foes--Newt Gingrich, Jesse Helms, Dan Lungren, Oliver North, the National Rifle Assn. "We have powerful enemies," she told a gun-control rally in San Jose.

Fong prefers to reassure his audiences that they share the same friends, particularly Jack Kemp and former President Ronald Reagan.

Where Boxer wants to excite her crowds, Fong wants not to offend his. In a news conference at a Salinas broccoli-packing plant, Fong mentioned his recent appearance with former President George Bush. In mid-sentence, the candidate appeared to remember Bush's distaste for broccoli.

"He doesn't like broccoli," Fong said, trying to recover, "but I love broccoli."

Boxer never says anything positive about Fong, but he has no problem admitting admiration for his foe. A veteran of the Air Force Academy judo team, he knows the folly of underestimating an opponent.

"I have great respect for Barbara Boxer," he said during a day of nonstop Central Valley campaigning. "She's tough and feisty. She's an incumbent. I wake up every day saying I'm 10 points behind."

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