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Boxer Takes the Lead in Senate Race With Fong

Incumbent has an impact with TV ads on abortion, gun control, HMO reform. But contest is still considered close.


Coming from behind, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer has reversed her fortunes, buffed her image and pulled slightly ahead of state Treasurer Matt Fong just 11 days before the election, according to a new Los Angeles Times poll.

Enjoying some of the highest job approval and personal favorability ratings of her six years in office, Democrat Boxer leads Republican Fong by 5 percentage points, 49% to 44%, among those considered likely to vote Nov. 3. A month ago, Boxer was trailing Fong by 5 points among likely voters.

At the same time, Boxer's bare 49% means she can scarcely afford to breathe easy, particularly in a so-called off-year--or nonpresidential--election, when conservative voters have tended to turn out more reliably.

She barely won in 1992, her first statewide campaign, with 48% of the vote. For an incumbent, reaching 50% is an important threshold because anything less suggests fertile ground for a challenger.

Still, Boxer's lead represents a significant rebound from just a few weeks ago.

The Democrat evidently reversed her position in the see-saw contest through a series of hard-hitting, and largely unanswered, TV commercials targeting Fong's stance on gun control, abortion and HMO reform--ads that appear to have solidified Boxer's support among two groups crucial to her reelection prospects: women and moderate voters.

Although Fong is ahead 52% to 41% among likely male voters, Boxer holds a 56% to 37% lead among women, who constitute a majority of the state electorate and proved indispensable to her election six years ago. Seventeen percent of Republican women most likely to vote are planning to cross party lines.

And although both candidates are generally holding on to their partisan bases, Boxer leads Fong among self-described middle-of-the-road likely voters, 62% to 26%.

"Boxer has done the better job of seizing the center, where most California voters are comfortable, and pushing Fong to the right," said Susan Pinkus, director of the Times Poll. "She's succeeded in turning the race away from a straight referendum on her incumbency, which Fong would like to make it, into more of an issue-focused contest between the two candidates."

Moreover, Boxer seems to have benefited from receding attention to the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal, which consumed the media for months, drowned out most talk of issues and pointed up her close personal and political ties to President Clinton.

The poll surveyed 1,449 registered voters Oct. 17-21. Among them, 883 were deemed likely to vote. The margin of error is 4 percentage points in either direction for likely voters and 3 points in either direction for registered voters.

TV Ads Make Impact

Boxer's surge between September and October demonstrates anew the potency--indeed, primacy--of television advertising in California politics.

Thanks to her command of the airwaves--Boxer has outspent Fong on TV advertising by roughly 2-1--the embattled incumbent has lifted herself in California voters' esteem while raising doubts about her opponent.

Fifty-one percent of likely voters now approve of Boxer's job performance and 37% disapprove. Although hardly a ringing vote of confidence, the figures mark the highest rating of Boxer's six years in the Senate.

For all her gains in the latest survey, however, the incumbent remains a highly polarizing figure. Although 79% of likely Democratic voters approve of Boxer's job performance and 11% disapprove, 65% of likely Republican voters disapprove of her job performance and only 21% approve.

Similarly, among likely male voters, 45% disapprove of Boxer's job performance and 43% approve, compared to 58% of women who approve and 30% who disapprove.

In a separate gauge of each candidate's standing, 52% of likely voters now have a favorable impression of Boxer and 42% an unfavorable one. A month ago, 49% of likely voters viewed Boxer favorably and 41% had an unfavorable impression.

Perhaps more significant, several weeks of negative advertising against Fong have clearly taken a toll on his image. Fong is still viewed favorably by 52% of likely voters; 31% view him unfavorably.

"With her ability to outspend him on advertising, Boxer has done a better job so far of defining Matt Fong than Matt Fong has," Pinkus said. "She's managed to set the agenda these last few weeks and run the race on her terms."

Moreover, on the issues Boxer has hit hardest in her advertising--abortion and gun control--the Democrat is commanding far stronger support. On abortion, Boxer is firmly pro-choice; Fong would restrict a woman's right to abortion after the first trimester of pregnancy.

Asked which candidate's views come closest to their own, 55% of likely voters said Boxer's and 40% cited Fong. Both men and women most likely to vote felt the same on abortion, with 55% supporting Boxer and 40% backing Fong.

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