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California and the West | NEWS ANALYSIS

Campbell Faces Long Odds in Battle to Oust Sen. Feinstein

Politics: The Republican will need big money, big breaks and a strong presidential campaign in California by Bush to beat the incumbent, analysts say.

March 26, 2000|GREG KRIKORIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In politics, eight months can be a virtual lifetime--more than enough time for a candidate to exploit an opponent's weaknesses, emphasize his or her own strengths and raise the money needed to explain both to voters.

But for a little-known Republican congressman trying to unseat a very well known Democratic U.S. senator, eight months might as well be eight years--especially if he was outpolled 2 to 1 in a decidedly conservative primary.

The Nov. 7 showdown between Sen. Dianne Feinstein and San Jose Rep. Tom Campbell is a David vs. Xena matchup. Already, many pundits argue that Campbell will need big money, big breaks and a big California campaign by Republican presidential hopeful George W. Bush, even to be competitive.

"I would never concede an election so long before the votes are in, but it's clear Tom Campbell has his work cut out for him," said political consultant Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, senior associate at the School of Politics and Economics at Claremont Graduate University.

Just months ago, Jeffe was telling the political world that Feinstein was vulnerable--witness her narrow reelection in 1994 and her defeat at the hands of Pete Wilson in the 1990 gubernatorial race.

But that was then. Now, Jeffe is one of many to marvel at Feinstein's showing in the primary: She won more votes than Campbell in every one of California's 58 counties including his own, Santa Clara.

"It is looking more and more as though there is only an outside chance that Tom Campbell can pull this off, and it may not even be his to pull off," Jeffe said. "It may be factors outside his control: the economy, the presidential campaign, something that none of us knows about yet."

Even Kam Kuwata, Feinstein's publicly cautious campaign manager, has been beaming like a Cheshire cat. "I'm a believer in Dianne Feinstein, so I want her to win big. I would have felt better if we had won with 75% of the vote," he said. "But realistically, could we be in a stronger position right now? Probably not."

But there are those who warn against calling the race in early spring.

"To say that there is no chance against her is ridiculous," said Republican strategist Kevin Spillane, a former consultant to Campbell. "First of all, there is no such thing as an unbeatable politician."

Further, he said, Feinstein's vulnerability was evident when her campaign decided to spend more than $1.5 million on pre-primary television advertising, even though she was virtually unopposed for the Democratic nomination. "That tells me they were concerned with her showing," said Spillane.

"I would say [Campbell] can win," he added. "But the challenge will be to raise the money."

By even the most conservative estimates, Campbell will need at least $10 million to be competitive. Many political observers say the real number is closer to $15 million. And so far, Campbell has shown that he can raise political money; he kept pace with Feinstein in the first weeks of the year.

But money alone won't make the difference. Just ask former Rep. Michael Huffington, the Santa Barbara Republican who spent almost $30 million and still lost to Feinstein, though barely, six years ago.

"One of the things that Campbell ought to do is try and pick up some of the [Arizona Sen. John] McCain reform message," said longtime Republican consultant Ken Khachigian, who most recently served as a senior advisor to McCain's presidential campaign.

"Campaign reform. Education reform. Military reform. He needs to just get out in front of her with some ideas," Khachigian said.

To win, he added, Campbell must also cobble together a coalition of Republicans and Democrats. "His challenge is to generate some interest and loyalty and support from the foot soldiers of the Republican Party, and the foot soldiers are conservatives."

Khachigian said: "He always felt that with the open primary a more moderate person could win the Republican nomination and eventually the Senate. Well, now he has that opportunity. So be careful what you wish for."

Indeed, though Campbell easily cleared the first hurdle, it was not with the sort of numbers that bode well for the fall.

A preliminary analysis of the primary by the Assembly Republican Caucus found that 81% of voters were white, 56% were male and 42% were conservative. Even with that makeup, Feinstein captured 3.4 million votes, more than double Campbell's total and 700,000 more than all the Republican Senate contenders combined.

But Bernd Schwieren, a consultant for the caucus, said there is still hope for Campbell in the numbers.

"Historically, Feinstein seems to be limited to 53%-54% in general elections statewide, a ceiling that, I think, gives Campbell some hope of making this a race," Schwieren said.

Another potential curve will be the unpredictability of general election voters, who are expected to total 3 million more than in the primary, said Schwieren.

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