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California and the West

Farmers in Central Valley Appear Cool to Campbell

Senate: Reaction in traditional GOP bastion illustrates Feinstein opponent's dilemma--how to court moderates without alienating conservatives.


FRESNO — If there's any place that a Republican can hope to find friendly faces and warm handshakes, it is here, where they don't consider family values a joke and where they recognize bull manure when they see it.

So why did only 15 people attend a lunch for U.S. Senate hopeful Tom Campbell, while just down the road in Tulare, 500 people showed up for a speech by Democratic incumbent Sen. Dianne Feinstein?

And why did one of the 15, a retired lawyer, say a lot of his conservative friends refused to come?

The answers have to do with the peculiar position that Campbell, a congressman from Silicon Valley, finds himself in as the GOP standard-bearer in the contest.

As a moderate trying to unseat a moderate Democrat in a Democratic state, he has spent a lot of time separating himself from conservative ideologues. Now, he has to prove his conservative bona fides to people who know what a conservative should be: Ronald Reagan.

First, he said here last week, he was no newcomer to Fresno. This was his 23rd visit. As for his Republican credentials, he proudly touted the fact that he was named the "cheapest man in Congress" by the National Taxpayers Union.

Yes, he admitted, he supports abortion rights. But then he pleaded: "We're in the minority" in California. "How do we become the majority? We do it by emphasizing what we have in common. I'm saying: Let's find points we agree on."

Just as George W. Bush is doing with moderate Republicans in the presidential campaign, Campbell was urging his conservative listeners to ignore his abortion position because he is, after all, better than the Democrat. The problem is, as his appearances in the Central Valley last week show, that argument hasn't taken hold.

The predicament was underscored by the fact that the California Farm Bureau endorsed Feinstein on Wednesday. Bureau spokesman Clark Biggs said the senator's pro-agriculture record "made it almost a slam-dunk."

As a member of the agriculture subcommittee, she has been instrumental in getting federal money for the fight against the glassy-winged sharpshooter, considered the most dangerous pest to threaten California crops since the Mediterranean fruit fly. Recently, she fought for 17 more agricultural inspectors on the border to keep out foreign pests.

As for their rejection of a Republican, Biggs said, "Farmers may be conservative, but they're also pragmatic."

Campbell operatives say the comparison with Feinstein's event is unfair because Campbell's tour of the Central Valley was as much for fact-finding as to drum up support.

The congressman started the day with a breakfast at Harris Ranch with several farmers. And then the legislator who is called the brightest man in Congress by Roll Call, a Capitol Hill weekly, impressed listeners with his grasp of complex water and farm issues. But even there, Feinstein dogged his heels.

John Harris, the owner of Harris Ranch, had previously hosted a fund-raiser for Feinstein that pulled in $100,000.

Thus is the scope of the two tasks facing Campbell as he tries to dislodge Feinstein, who has used her eight years in office to build a strong fund-raising and political operation: One is proving that he's liberal enough to win in California. The other is proving that he's conservative enough to win in the Central Valley.

As Secretary of State Bill Jones put it: "If you do what you're supposed to do in the rest of the state, the valley can close the deal for you. If not, the valley's not big enough to carry you."

Independent polls show Campbell trailing Feinstein by as much as 26 points.

That's one reason Campbell has had difficulty raising money. The latest campaign statements show that he's raised $1.3 million to Feinstein's $3 million, which isn't much either in a statewide contest. Experts say the big money may be waiting on both sides to see if Campbell makes it a race.

So are the big Republican guns. Pete Wilson, always popular with farmers, has been invisible in Campbell's race, as has former Gov. George Deukmejian, whose Armenian roots make him doubly valuable in the Central Valley.

Ann Veneman, who was California's secretary of food and agriculture under Wilson, said Campbell has a good understanding of issues that farmers care about and he should have a good chance of attracting their support, even though he favors abortion rights.

"It's good for Republicans to have someone who's more moderate," she said. But Campbell has "a steep road to climb."

One reason is that Feinstein has "reached out very strongly" to agriculture. Feinstein campaign advisor Kam Kuwata said the senator has been involved in continuing discussions about how to solve the valley's worsening water problems, for example.

It may be that the only way for a Republican to win a statewide race in California these days is to reach out to the liberal side. But that can jeopardize a Republican's natural base, as Campbell found in Fresno.

Jones tried to carry the battle for Campbell at the Harris Ranch: "I know the feeling is: Feinstein is unbeatable. But in California anyone is beatable any year."

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