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California and the West | CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / U.S.
SENATE

Less Traveled Path Takes Campbell on Uphill Climb

Politics: Lacking a huge war chest, Republican candidate adopts a strategy of taking controversial stands. Experts say his plan risks alienating voters.

September 12, 2000|GREG KRIKORIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

maverick [colloq.]--a person who takes an independent stand, as in politics, refusing to conform to that party or group.

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When the Republican Jewish Coalition held a grand reception at the GOP Convention, the din of conversation was so loud that the emcee and others at Philadelphia's Park Hyatt Hotel shushed the crowd every few minutes just so they could hear.

But when Republican U.S. Senate candidate Tom Campbell took the microphone, with a golden chance to address an important audience, the crowd grew quiet--mostly in surprise at what he said.

While a committed friend of Israel, the congressman told the group, he does not believe that nation--or others with good economies--still need American aid. Military aid, yes, but not economic assistance. Palestinians, Campbell went on to say, deserve their own homeland, and there is no reason Jerusalem cannot be the capital of more than one nation.

Campbell received polite applause, but many in the audience--while impressed by his candor--said they could not support his positions. Or him.

As he dons the label of political maverick in his uphill battle to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Campbell is a walking advertisement for the two sides of running as an iconoclast.

He gets attention, but not all of it is good. He is praised by those who have never supported a Republican, but is alienating Grand Old Party loyalists.

Campbell has no inclination to campaign any other way. And, just as importantly, he has few alternatives.

Lacking a huge war chest, he cannot buy the television time needed to make his case to voters. And with polls showing he is still unknown to many Californians, he has chosen to make high-profile stands and hope they draw attention.

In addition to his unorthodox position on the Middle East, he has advocated replacing the federal income tax with a national sales tax, and said he would support a limited experiment in government distribution of drugs as a means of curbing crime and getting addicts into treatment. In coming weeks, he plans to reassert those positions through a string of appearances at college campuses and on radio programs, including at least three that he will host to field questions.

"I understand what he is doing," said Mark Baldassare, executive director of the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. "He is doing whatever he can to get free media, get attention and shake up the status quo . . . and he pretty much has to take that route.

"But he has to be careful about overdoing that and being seen as more marginal and less serious" than the incumbent, Baldassare said. He added that he believes the congressman knows where--and when--to draw the line.

"Being a maverick is one of Campbell's greatest political strengths. It is what he is comfortable with. It is what he has been his whole career," said Baldassare. "And it certainly has resonated with voters in his home district."

Indeed, he has been popular enough to win four terms as a congressman. But in the March primary, he was outpolled on his home turf--Santa Clara County--by Feinstein, who captured 54% of the vote.

Republican strategist and onetime Campbell consultant Kevin Spillane noted that conservatives may be upset with Campbell's support for gun control or abortion rights. But ultimately, he said, they will support Campbell because he is Republican. The most recent Field Poll shows him still trailing far behind Feinstein but winning almost 75% of GOP voters.

"Republican voters, in general, are more united than they have been in a long time, and Tom will benefit to a degree from that," Spillane said.

Not everyone is so sure.

"The Republicans are not going to vote him in, so he needs to get all the other help" he can get, said former state Sen. Lucy Killea, a Democrat turned Independent from San Diego.

But while a "great admirer" of her former legislative colleague, Killea added that Campbell faces a tough battle for voters as a maverick. "People like to see it, but they don't always support it," she said.

Just ask Bill Bradley or Gary Hart or John Anderson.

Campbell acknowledges the risks.

"There is a peril [but] it is a comfortable fit," he said after a recent speech in San Diego. "Far less comfortable would be for me to defend things that maybe I am not that comfortable with because they are traditional party doctrine or traditional California. . . . That is not ever how I've done things."

Spillane and others wonder how much danger Campbell's positions, notably on the Middle East, really present.

"It certainly has the potential to be a fund-raising issue," Spillane said, "but . . . most Jewish donors are Democrats. So how much will it really hurt him financially?"

If Rosalie Zalis has any say, plenty.

"Not only will I no longer support him, but I will actively work against his election," said the fund-raiser and senior policy advisor to former GOP Gov. Pete Wilson.

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