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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Campbell Crosses the Line in a Desperate Attack

October 26, 2000|GEORGE SKELTON

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Tom Campbell had followed the national polls and watched Al Gore's slide as he became tainted as a fibber. Maybe character does count, Campbell told himself. Perhaps he could glom onto the dynamic of the presidential race by attacking Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein's integrity. That, finally, might send her into a skid.

After all, the Republican National Committee was now running a TV ad asking, "Why does Al Gore say one thing, when the truth is another?" These party sages must know something about fickle voter attitudes, the San Jose congressman figured.

What's to lose? He was trailing Feinstein by landslide numbers in the latest independent polls--17 points in a survey by the Public Policy Institute of California and 20 in a Field Poll.

This was the thinking, Campbell sources say, that hatched the GOP underdog's new attack on Feinstein's China connection, real or imagined. He launched it during the candidates' first debate Tuesday on cable TV in Santa Monica.

There was no dillydallying. Campbell got right to it in his opening statement. He devoted the entire two minutes to a vague charge that the senator had a "direct family interest in China" while not fully disclosing it or disqualifying herself from voting.

This topic then consumed the first 15 minutes of an hourlong debate. What a waste!

Campbell implied that Feinstein had a conflict of interest because she supported permanent trade relations with China while her multimillionaire husband--international financier Richard Blum--has had investments there and also has managed other people's investments in China.

It's all very complicated. But it boils down to Campbell accusing Feinstein of not disclosing everything she should, and the senator replying that she has disclosed everything she's required to by law.

Moreover, she added, "I own nothing in China. My husband has divested all of his investments. Any personal profits go into a charitable trust. Period."

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Feinstein said she was being bashed for being a lifelong China buff.

She studied the country in college, promoted a "sister city" relationship with Shanghai when she was San Francisco's mayor, comes from a town with a renowned Chinatown and firmly believes that trade is the key to bringing the world's most populous nation into the international mainstream. More importantly, China trade is good for California.

Campbell aides distributed a press release calling Feinstein "The Manchurian Candidate."

It alleged that she and her husband "have a large stake" in a Manchurian mill that produces "military steel." A longtime Feinstein aide replied that the Campbell camp had its steel mills mixed up; the one Blum had invested in before he pulled out last year produced only pig iron.

Also floated by Campbell aides was a release headlined: "Sen. Dianne Feinstein: Positively Clintonesque."

I.e., a liar--because Blum still belongs to a limited partnership that invests in China. The Feinstein aide--campaign manager Kam Kuwata--responded that Blum always opts out of any China investments. And when he manages other people's money, it's for a flat fee, not a commission on earnings.

"I've been in public life for over 30 years," Feinstein noted. "There's never been an ounce of scandal."

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The missing political catalyst for Campbell in all this is simple clarity.

Gore's fibbing is easily understood and indisputable: No, that Florida high school student is not permanently assigned to standing against the wall. The vice president did not fly with the federal disaster director to those Texas fires. Did not invent the Internet.

Here, Campbell is dealing with eye-glazing complexities.

And even if Feinstein were lying--and there's no real evidence she is--Californians don't seem in the mood to hear about it. The Times Poll reported Wednesday that while Republicans across the country have been loudly calling Gore a liar, voters in this state believe he is the more honest candidate.

But what's Campbell got to lose? Here's what: his good name.

He entered the race as a respected moderate congressman--intelligent, articulate, very civil. The rumor--which he won't discuss--is that he abandoned his House seat and ran for the Senate because Stanford threatened to terminate his tenured law professorship unless he returned to campus. So for him, it was up or out. And up against Feinstein was near-impossible.

But in this contest he at least was dying with dignity. Now, in desperation, he's in danger of losing nastily with dishonor.

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