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California and the West | THE WASHINGTON CONNECTION
/ CATHLEEN DECKER

A Would-Be Giant Killer's New Challenge

April 13, 1999|CATHLEEN DECKER

Almost everyone in California knows her, and, if recent polls are right, they like her by nearly a 2-to-1 margin. She would clean the clock of every Republican thinking about running against her, the same polls say. So it would not be surprising if Republicans looked at their looming race against Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein as the rough equivalent of climbing Everest in the winter. Barefoot.

But hope springs eternal in the political breast, so here is the party's conclusion: She's not that invincible. And even if she is, remember that George Bush looked invincible a year and a half before he got thumped, back when he was riding stratospheric ratings as the confetti cascaded down from the Persian Gulf War ticker-tape parades. And remember Feinstein herself, flying high after her first election until Michael Huffington, an almost unknown congressman with $30 million in his pocket, nearly unseated her.

Even if they're right, it's something of a cosmic turn that most of the state's GOP hierarchy is panting for James Rogan to take her on--the same James Rogan recently spotlighted as a House prosecutor during the losing attempt to convict President Clinton of perjury and obstruction of justice.

Rogan might as well have morphed into the freckle-faced Mikey who starred in the old cereal commercials: Let's ask Rogan. He'll try anything.

The Glendale congressman has not yet decided whether to run. His aides say he is pondering the race's impact on his family and constituents. But some who have spoken privately with him insist his body language is that of a man on the move.

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Strange as it may seem, there are clear advantages for Rogan. His current House seat will be redistricted out of existence by 2002; his district was leaning Democratic anyway, and Democrats who control the line-drawing are not about to save their president's prosecutor.

Even without that, it is hard to imagine the avid political historian finding sustenance in debates about House minutiae after having starred in the first presidential impeachment in 130 years. And the flip side of having a Democratic bull's-eye planted on his back is that Rogan has emerged as a hero among national GOP activists inclined to donate to big races.

And there's another compelling Republican rationale: If not Rogan, who? San Diego County Supervisor Bill Horn, who Monday announced his candidacy against Feinstein, was recognized in a recent Field poll by 19% of Californians--and even that seems excessive. State Sen. Ray Haynes, who earlier said he was running, is now leading the charge for Rogan, who Field said was known by 25% of Californians.

While they wait for Rogan, Republicans have been ruminating about the shape of the hypothetical race. In bold strokes, it goes like this:

They attack Feinstein's image among voters as a centrist, trying to tie her to the less popular profile of her fellow Sen. Barbara Boxer (who, it should be mentioned, defeated her Republican opponent in November by a handy 10 points). They hope that the continuing probe of China's efforts to influence the 1996 presidential election can be tossed into Feinstein's lap, since she is one of China's biggest Senate boosters and her husband, Richard Blum, does business there.

They pray that the simultaneous presidential election warms the environment for all Republicans and puts those who can get close to their Democratic opponents over the top. They cross their fingers that Feinstein has lost her ardor for politics, an iffy proposition since the senator is now gearing up her fund-raising.

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Alternately, the Republicans hope that providence, in the form of the Democratic presidential nominee, taps Feinstein as a vice presidential running mate and drastically changes the race's landscape.

For there are problems, for Republicans, in the landscape as it now exists. The state's demographics are increasingly helpful to Democrats. California strongly favors abortion rights, like Feinstein and unlike Rogan. It opposed impeachment, which would require Rogan to argue to voters that he showed integrity by ignoring their will and pursuing the president.

Some Republicans suggest that this race would have been a perfect setting in which to change the party's image, by launching a woman or a minority against Feinstein.

"It's not the best idea to run someone whose breakout event in the public's mind was as impeachment House manager in the most anti-impeachment state in the country," said one nervous GOP operative.

But politics is a sport in which games are not called on account of difficult circumstances. It is also one in which losing is not necessarily fatal. And that is a large part of the strategizing for the Senate race. While no one is willing to put it this brazenly, many Republicans figure that if their nominee wins, hurrah! If he loses but campaigns well, all the better for the statewide races in 2002.

For Rogan specifically, a respectable effort, winning or not, could broaden voter knowledge of him beyond impeachment, educating the state about his up-by-the-bootstraps personal history, highly successful resume and, at least until impeachment raised its head, friendly relations with politicians from both major parties.

"Done right," said a chuckling Haynes, the Rogan booster, "there is no such thing as a suicide run in politics."

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