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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

In-Law Problem Complicates Boxer's Task

October 15, 1998|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Most everybody has at least one family member they'd rather not talk about, maybe an in-law who's a tad embarrassing. Some uncouth Bubba, perhaps.

Sen. Barbara Boxer certainly carries such a burden. He's that formerly respectable guy in the big white house whose wife's brother is married to her daughter.

Unfortunately for Boxer, they're not just kinfolk by marriage, but also by politics. The senator is weighed down by a double sense of loyalty. And although she's privately angry at the jerk, she also feels a dual duty not to blister him in public.

But people--mainly news media people--keep asking her about the in-law. She got asked again Monday night in a televised debate with Republican opponent Matt Fong. This now has evolved into "the hypocrisy question" because, in contrast to her mild comments about President Clinton, Democrat Boxer previously led vociferous fights against some Republicans accused of sexual harassment.

The senator has become so numbed by these queries that in the debate, she forgot a key part of her stock answer: that the president's behavior was "wrong." She only reiterated the second part of her routine: "It is time to move on. . . . You look at it . . . say what you have to say about it . . . and you move on to the issues that the people care about."

That set up the debate's best sound bite for Fong: "Barbara Boxer, your silence for seven months was certainly deafening, but your hypocrisy . . . is ear-splitting."

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You better believe Boxer wants to move on.

For weeks, she had difficulty conveying her campaign message--except through TV ads--because all any reporter wanted to ask about, it seemed, was Clinton. "It has been a huge diversion of time and energy," says Jim Margolis, her strategist and ad-maker.

The Monica mantra has muted in the last couple of weeks, however, and now Boxer is starting to be heard on the issues she and the pollsters contend the people care about. That's the key to her race.

Boxer has to make this a contest about issues, not about Clinton--nor about personalities. She's just not very popular. Her image is more unfavorable than favorable in the latest independent Field Poll (favorable 42%, unfavorable 48%). By contrast, state Treasurer Fong has a highly favorable image (55%-17%).

The voters seem to agree with Boxer about the president. "They want to talk about schools, not scandal," reports another pollster, Mark Baldassare, who last week conducted a statewide survey.

And regarding all the speculation about Clinton's sordid misbehavior depressing the Democratic turnout, Baldassare says his data show that "the scandal won't drive voters to the polls, but it won't keep them away either."

Both the Field and Baldassare surveys of likely voters indicate the race is too close to call. Field found Fong ahead by 48% to 44%. Baldassare showed Boxer in front by 47% to 44%.

To win, Boxer needs to live up to her name and punch out Fong, driving up his "negatives." Margolis puts it more subtly: "We just want people to know where Fong stands. The rest takes care of itself."

That's why the latest Boxer TV ad attempts to align Fong with "extremists"--particularly House Speaker Newt Gingrich--on abortion. It contends "Fong is not pro-choice," which is a matter of definition. He is during the first trimester; not afterward. He's also against spending public money for abortions.

On abortion, gun control, the environment, health care and education, Boxer believes most voters side with her. And the Field Poll agrees. The poll gives Fong the edge on taxes and military spending.

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"I'm at a loss to explain why Boxer's numbers look the way they do," says Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll. "I think this is a referendum on Boxer.

"When an incumbent is running, the first question voters ask is, 'Do I want to reelect the incumbent?' If the answer is 'Yes,' the challenger never has a chance. If the answer is 'No,' then they ask, 'Is the challenger acceptable?' If so, the challenger usually wins."

DiCamillo believes "Boxer's negatives have to do with her personality. The issues aren't it. She has the better positions. It's the aura about Boxer--something that's turning off voters, especially men. Maybe the shrill nature, the pugnacious attitude."

Baldassare, however, disagrees. He thinks Boxer comes across as too liberal for California. He adds, "She's just now beginning to define herself in terms that resonate with voters. But it's very late in the game for an incumbent senator to be telling people who she is."

It doesn't help when she has to keep explaining about a certain in-law.

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