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

Fong Contrasts Foe With Feinstein

Attempts to criticize Boxer by praising her colleague have fallen flat; he trails her in polls. Some say tactic smacks of sexism.


It has been a big part of Matt Fong's campaign to convince voters that Sen. Barbara Boxer is a political extremist--a drumbeat of criticism based on a comparison of her with the state's other Democratic U.S. senator.

"Dianne Feinstein is a Democrat, but she will work with Republicans," Fong has said repeatedly. "Barbara Boxer always puts partisanship above the interests of California."

On Thursday, Fong picked up the endorsement of Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a Republican who endorsed Feinstein in 1994. In backing Fong, Riordan invoked the Feinstein-good/Boxer-bad mantra.

"Dianne Feinstein is a unifier, a person who has done wonders for Los Angeles and the state," Riordan said. "Barbara Boxer is a divisive person. . . . She's someone who does not have respect for people with whom she disagrees."

Never mind that Feinstein has endorsed Boxer.

In any case, the tactic does not seem to have worked. The independent Field Poll released Thursday has Fong trailing Boxer by 9 percentage points as the campaign enters its final weekend.

The Feinstein-Boxer comparisons have failed to stir audiences, unlike Fong's comments about cutting taxes and bolstering the military, which often provoke hand-clapping and head-nodding. A woman in Fresno quietly hissed at the Feinstein line.

An academic expert on campaign tactics and voter persuasion says the idea is one of those calculations by political insiders that fall flat in the real world.

"It's the kind of line that might resonate with political junkies, but those aren't the people Fong needs to worry about," said Gary Jacobson, professor of political science at UC San Diego. "Most voters haven't spent time thinking about the differences between California's two senators."

The two incumbents--both from the San Francisco Bay Area--have shared the same podium at numerous rallies in a show of solidarity, and Feinstein suggests that Fong's approach borders on sexism.

"You don't see this if [Massachusett Democratic senators] Teddy Kennedy and John Kerry have a difference," Feinstein said at a recent Santa Monica rally. "You don't see the press looking for differences."

During a tour of the Central Valley, farmers for Fong said they found Feinstein open to their viewpoint but that Boxer would not even listen to them. "Feinstein will listen, Boxer won't," said Bill Pauli, president of the State Farm Bureau.

Former Sen. Bob Dole, at a Fong fund-raiser, said Boxer was nearly the most obstinate Democrat he had ever met--compared, he said, to the more collegial Feinstein, who can remain calm even during times of disagreement.

When Fong began to be attacked by Boxer as a threat to the environment, the candidate responded by noting that, like Feinstein, he supports the Quincy Library compromise plan to manage timber harvesting in old growth forests in Northern California.

"Feinstein knew it was a good compromise," Fong said. "But Boxer got a call from the national environmental groups and suddenly she was opposed."

In pointing out what he saw as Boxer's hypocrisy for not initially blasting President Clinton over the White House sex scandal as she had attacked Republicans embroiled in sex scandals, Fong noted with some glee that Feinstein had been quick and scathing in her comments on Clinton.

Soon after the primary, the Fong campaign gave reporters lists of votes in which Feinstein and Boxer were on opposing sides. Beginning in the summer, a parade of Republican leaders have joined Fong to bash Boxer by praising Feinstein as more reasonable and politically moderate.

There are some who believe that Fong's tactic has not just failed but backfired because it smacks of men being unable to cope with a strong-willed woman like Boxer. "It came off like male whining," said Ann Shanahan Walsh, a publicist and Republican political consultant.

In novelist Richard North Patterson's recent political thriller, "No Safe Place," there are two Democratic female senators from California: one is tall and regal, the other short, fiery and passionately dedicated to abortion rights. The two keep up appearances but are mortal enemies.

Boxer--a Patterson buff--delights in the portrayal but says the stuff about the two senators not getting along is strictly fiction. She jokes that she spends more time with Feinstein than with her husband.

"It's important to keep this team together," Boxer told a cheering crowd in San Francisco. "We're the long and the short of it."

To review Barbara Boxer's and Matt Fong's positions on key issues and see video clips from their debates, go to The Times' Web site:

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