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

Boxer, Fong in Bay Area Tonight for Last Debate

Both incumbent and challenger say they want to focus on key state issues. But the White House scandal, which dominated the last session, could surface again.


For weeks they have traded punches by fax, Web site, television commercial and proxy. Now, the two combatants in the U.S. Senate race will go toe to toe in their second and final campaign debate tonight.

Republican Matt Fong hopes the match in San Francisco will give him a chance to discuss taxes, education and national defense, topics barely mentioned in the first debate between him and the Democratic incumbent, Barbara Boxer, in August.

Boxer's camp says she will be pleased to discuss those issues and a slew of others and not get bogged down in discussion of the White House sex scandal, as the last debate did.

Last week, the normally low-key Fong escalated the tenor and tone of his attacks on Boxer as a big-spending liberal.

"As we get closer to this election, I want it very clear to voters that that distinction [between him and Boxer] exists," Fong said after speeches in Irvine and Riverside on Wednesday. "We're sharpening up the contrast."

Rose Kapolczynski, Boxer's campaign manager, responded that Fong "sounds like a candidate struggling to find a message that works. We think the momentum has shifted and our message is getting out."

Boxer has spent the last half a dozen weekends at campaign rallies throughout California blasting Fong as a threat to Social Security, abortion rights and the environment, and as an opponent of gun control and food safety laws. Now, with Congress nearing a recess until after the Nov. 3 election, she plans to join the fight full time.

At week's end, the independent Field Poll showed Fong leading the race among likely voters with 48% to Boxer's 44%.

Boxer portrays Fong, the state treasurer, in the same terms she used in 1992 to describe her Republican opponent, television commentator Bruce Herschensohn, although Fong is not nearly as conservative as Herschensohn nor as activist-minded on social issues.

Fong calls Boxer a danger to national security for not backing the Reagan-era Star Wars defense system and a hypocrite for not lashing President Bill Clinton more severely on the White House sex scandal.

To bolster his argument that Boxer is a freeze-dried 1960s ultra-liberal from Marin County, Fong noted in the Wednesday speech that Boxer once voted to endorse a search for extraterrestrial intelligence, "boldly sending taxpayer dollars where they shouldn't be spent."

Boxer did vote in favor of such a program, to be conducted by NASA, when the money was tucked inside an $80-billion spending bill for the Veterans Administration and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which was approved overwhelmingly.

But when the program was singled out for consideration in 1993, Boxer voted to kill it. One senator who supported the program was Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), who recently hosted a Fong fund-raiser in her home state.

There is no indication that Fong will be displeased if the Clinton scandal dominates tonight's debate--even though he told reporters at a Republican state convention two weeks ago that Clinton is not an issue in the race.

Fong asserted then that it is still fair game to blast Boxer for not being tougher on Clinton, to whom she is related by marriage. In last week's speech, however, Fong resurrected the scandal, attempting to link it and Boxer's television commercial branding her challenger the "gun lobby's" candidate, a charge he disputes.

"The presidency has been dragged into the gutter, and every serious issue we should be discussing has been wiped off the table," Fong said. ". . . What is Barbara Boxer doing in this time of unprecedented cynicism? She is subjecting voters to negative attack advertising that distorts, misleads and lowers our political discourse to even lower depths."

The scandal is still a touchy subject for Boxer, who vaulted to national prominence by joining other congresswomen in demanding public hearings into Anita Hill's charges against Clarence Thomas, and later took the lead in demanding hearings into harassment allegations against Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.)

Boxer has called Clinton's conduct immoral but has unleashed none of the vituperation she displayed in the Thomas and Packwood cases or in the U.S. Navy sex harassment scandals. On the stump, she has taken to referring to "President Clinton's hardships."

Last week, Dan Quayle, Henry Kissinger, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander came west for Fong fund-raisers. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Gov. Pete Wilson, New Jersey Gov. Christine Whitman and Arizona Sen. John McCain have already done the same.

The Boxer campaign has attempted to use their endorsements of Fong to rile the Democratic faithful. At campaign rallies, Boxer routinely suggests that they show how determined the Republican Party is to defeat her.

"I couldn't be more flattered," Boxer says. "They're bringing in all those big guns, and I'm only 5-foot tall."

The Kissinger blessing particularly appears to rankle Boxer, who got involved in politics as part of the anti-Vietnam War movement. "Talk about moving back to the past," she said to reporters traveling with her in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Workers for Boxer and the Democratic campaign committee remind Latino voters in routine get-out-the-vote calls about Fong's link to Wilson, a booster of Proposition 187, the anti-illegal immigration measure.

A poll done for the Democratic National Committee suggests that two-thirds of Latino voters hold negative views of the two-term governor.

Fong worked in Wilson's U.S. Senate campaign in 1988 and later, at Wilson's urging, ran for state controller. After he lost that race, Fong was appointed by Wilson to the state Board of Equalization.

The Wilson-Fong relationship "is a good wedge issue for us," said Alejandro Padilla, Southern California field director for the statewide Democratic campaign.

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