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Feinstein Not Sweating Her Run for Reelection

With a comfortable lead in the polls and exalted status in her party, she doesn't even mention her own race or GOP opponent Campbell in convention-week speeches.

August 17, 2000|GREG KRIKORIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Her Republican opponent runs himself ragged in a bid for attention. Her critics describe her as aloof, distant, even imperial. All the while, Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein glides above the fray, running for reelection without appearing to run at all.

As if anyone needed reminding of her standing within the party, particularly with its national convention in her home state, the senior senator from California addressed delegates three times on opening night. First, to greet them. Next, to introduce a video on former President Jimmy Carter. Finally, to remind anyone who needed reminding of her work on gun control.

She followed that with a Tuesday breakfast speech to California's vast delegation. For lunch, she was the keynote speaker at a Beverly Hills event for the powerful women's lobby EMILY's List.

With nary a nod to the fact that winning another term, while likely, is not guaranteed, Feinstein has not been crisscrossing the state or making podium-pounding speeches as her Republican opponent, Rep. Tom Campbell, has. She doesn't talk about him unless asked.

Instead, she has been doing what an senator with a big lead in the polls can do: stay in Washington and cast votes, make periodic state-of-the-state speeches in big California cities, do a star turn at the convention and leave it to others to sing her praises.

Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Medal of Honor recipient, lauded her work on gun control, telling the California delegates Tuesday how she persisted against the National Rifle Assn. with a simple argument to colleagues: "The laws need to be changed . . . to make our streets more safe."

Bowing to her tenacity, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) lightheartedly told the group: "It's just a lot easier to say 'yes' [to her] because she is going to get you anyway."

In her first convention hall appearance Monday afternoon, Feinstein welcomed the delegates and spoke for several minutes about the upcoming elections and how important they are to Democrats before briefly relinquishing the stage. Not once did she mention that she is up for reelection.

"Funny thing is it didn't occur to me," she said minutes later, surrounded by a sea of California delegates shaking her hand or posing with her for pictures.

Later, she opened her remarks about Jimmy Carter by thanking her supporters for carrying Feinstein campaign signs.

"What Dianne is about is governing," said John Emerson, a former senior White House official. "And in my view that is the best way for her to run for reelection: to talk about both what she has helped accomplish and where she wants to take the state and take the country."

Clearly, that approach has worked with voters so far.

Exit polls taken among voters in the March primary showed that she won every demographic category and, most tellingly for California, the political center. A Times exit poll found that 38% of self-described moderate Republicans and 64% of independents who said they were moderates supported her.

All that said, Feinstein told the California delegates Tuesday that if they want Democrats to keep the White House, they cannot take the November election for granted. And neither will she, said the senator, who narrowly survived her last election after an unexpectedly strong challenge from oil heir Michael Huffington, then a Santa Barbara congressman.

In coming weeks, she announced, her itinerary will take her to Lake Tahoe, Redding, Eureka, Tulare, Orange County, San Diego and back to Los Angeles.

There will be debates, she later told reporters. And even if the polls suggest she is unstoppable, she is not going to coast, she said: "I always worry."

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