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CAMPAIGN 2000 | U.S. SENATE

Pressure Is on GOP's Campbell in Face-Off With Feinstein

A relative unknown, he is tackling an incumbent whose primary vote totals showed strength across the spectrum.

March 09, 2000|AMY PYLE and GREG KRIKORIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

With a political eternity before their showdown in November, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and her Republican challenger, Rep. Tom Campbell of San Jose, will have more than enough time to try to secure votes for victory.

But as Tuesday's election results suggest, the pressure will be almost entirely on Campbell, whose easy victory over other Republicans in no way presages what's in store this fall.

Even as the two-term congressman was jubilant that Feinstein won just slightly more than a simple majority of the primary vote--51.4%--what that number does not reflect is the breadth of her support among all sorts of voters.

And there was this significant number: Feinstein captured about 3.4 million votes in the primary, 1 million more than Democratic presidential front-runner Al Gore.

"The rule of thumb is that any time an incumbent gets less than 55%, there is a potential for the challenger," said veteran GOP consultant Allan Hoffenblum. "But let's be honest: This was a decidedly conservative turnout."

And for Campbell to have any chance of victory, Hoffenblum said, he will need a strong showing in California by the GOP presidential nominee.

Hoffenblum also said Campbell "has to turn this into a personality contest rather than a partisan contest. He has to say, 'I am young. I am vigorous. I can do a better job. And if Republicans can keep control of the U.S. Senate, I will have more power to get things done.' "

While distinctions between the two moderates may seem subtle, early indications are that they plan plenty of campaign clashes on issues as diverse as foreign relations and gun control.

Campbell's challenge is his relative obscurity: Polls suggest that as few as one-third of voters know enough about him to form an opinion. And in a recent Times poll, more than half of likely voters said they could not determine whether he was more liberal or conservative than they were.

"Get me better known and I'll win," became his mantra at fund-raising stops during the primary campaign.

Feinstein's camp suggests otherwise, considering that she outperformed Campbell on his home turf, drawing 180,187 votes compared to his 104,590 in Santa Clara County.

"As the state gets to know him better, I don't know that they'll necessarily flock to his candidacy," said Feinstein campaign manager Kam Kuwata.

Working in Campbell's favor in his quest for exposure is a long general election campaign resulting from California's early primary; it was bumped forward from June to March for the first time this year. Starting in two weeks, he plans to spend six months traveling to "every part of this state," he said.

In the final days of the primary campaign, the 47-year-old congressman hit his stride, seeming to thrive on the grueling process of bounding from city to city.

But Feinstein is no campaign slouch, as she proved when seriously threatened by multimillionaire Michael Huffington six years ago. Though then-Rep. Huffington outspent her 2 to 1, Feinstein waged a strong defense using her dry wit and tough talk to attack his relative inexperience.

At 66, Feinstein may be past what many consider retirement age, but she has made it clear that she still has work to do in the Senate. This, she said at a recent fund-raiser, "is what I want to dedicate the rest of my life to."

Contrasts on Spending

Campbell probably will pound away about his tightfisted approach toward federal spending--the National Taxpayers Union rated him the cheapest member of Congress and Feinstein among its top spenders.

But he also will highlight his votes against American intervention in sticky foreign wars, such as Kosovo and most recently Colombia's civil war--both ideas that Feinstein has supported.

And he will seek to paint Feinstein as a party loyalist even if it means betraying her word. His most common example has been the balanced budget amendment, which he says Feinstein vowed to vote for but then opposed.

Feinstein aides counter that she did vote for a 1994 balanced budget amendment, which failed. When it was brought back the next year, she proposed an alternative version that barred the use of Social Security trust funds to reduce the deficit, but ultimately opposed the original version without that protection.

Assuming the economy continues to boom, Feinstein's campaign will assert that in good times the country needs more Democrats to spend money compassionately.

She vows to continue her battle against guns, which began when an assassin's bullet made her mayor of San Francisco and includes legislation bottled up in the House to prevent importation of ammunition clips for assault weapons. Campbell also supports what he calls "reasonable gun controls," but Feinstein is likely to challenge the depth of his commitment.

She has taken the lead on emphasizing education, saying veteran teachers should be paid as much as administrators and offering bonuses to districts that end automatic grade advancement known as "social promotion."

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