The Republican U.S. Senate race heads into its final stretch with three contenders struggling to stop it from becoming a coronation of front-runner Bill Jones as the party nominee to challenge Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer.
Jones, a former secretary of state, is fending off increasingly sharp jabs from his three main rivals, Rosario Marin, Howard Kaloogian and Toni Casey. To their growing irritation, he has turned down most debate invitations and campaigned for weeks as if the March 2 primary were already behind him.
"Republican voters should not have someone who thinks they are anointed as the nominee," said Casey, a former Los Altos Hills mayor who yearns for the sort of statewide media forum that debates provide.
Even if public polls show that most likely GOP voters are undecided in the race, the classic front-runner strategy seems to be paying off for Jones, who held a substantial lead in a survey released Thursday. Taken together, the criticisms from his opponents only underscore his standing in the race.
The challengers' main line of attack -- one with strong potential appeal in a GOP primary -- has been to question Jones' credentials as a fiscal conservative. They cite the votes he cast in 1991 as a state Assemblyman in support of billions of dollars in tax hikes, part of a deal under Republican Gov. Pete Wilson to dig the state out of what was then a record budget shortfall.
Marin, a former U.S. treasurer, has devoted a website to the cause, taxbilljones.com. Under the home page headline, "The Taxman Cometh," it says: "Bill Jones' record on taxes has cost us dearly! We can't afford him in the Senate!"
But Jones, 54, holds two major advantages over his rivals: He is the best known candidate in the primary, and his showcase endorsement comes from California's popular new governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Jones' advisors see Schwarzenegger's support as a crucial asset.
"It's the only interesting thing that's happened in this campaign," said Jones strategist Ed Rollins.
Schwarzenegger was the top attraction at a Jones fundraiser Thursday night in Los Angeles. To the chagrin of the Jones team, the event, held at a private home, was closed to the media. A Schwarzenegger advisor said the governor, expecting Jones to win the primary, wanted to stay focused on campaigning for two budget measures on the ballot.
For all the candidates, media attention has been hard to come by. None of them -- not even Jones -- has the millions of dollars needed to buy substantial television advertising statewide, and none has bought any.
Financial reports released this week show a stark divide between the Republican candidates and the incumbent they hope to depose. As of Feb. 11, Jones had just $212,000 on hand; Casey, $198,000; Marin, $86,000; and Kaloogian, $53,000, according to the campaigns.
By contrast, Boxer today will file a report showing $5.3 million in the bank -- 25 times as much as Jones.
As she prepares to campaign for a third term, Boxer, 63, has tried to shore up her traditional strength among women voters, most recently with a new bill to bolster abortion rights protections. She has also tried to broaden her reach, most visibly by pushing to block any shutdown of California military bases and heighten security for harbors and passenger jets. Today, Boxer will tour a Coast Guard station in San Francisco Bay.
For Jones, the lack of campaign cash poses a major challenge. But the money problem is more severe for his opponents.
Jones has run statewide three times, winning two terms as secretary of state, then losing the 2002 GOP primary for governor. All the others, however, are newcomers to statewide elections, and thus at pains to capture voters' attention and lure contributors. So far they have essentially been unable to introduce themselves to California.
"In a state this large, that's extremely hard with a limited budget," said GOP strategist Richard Temple, who worked on Jones' previous campaigns but is not involved in the Senate race.
Further complicating matters for Jones' rivals is the "cacophony of political noise" from other races on the ballot, starting with the Democratic presidential primary, said Larry Gerston, a San Jose State University political scientist. "They can't get traction," he said.
Among the distractions from the Senate race is a slew of television commercials about the March 2 ballot measures. Schwarzenegger is spending millions on ads promoting two of them, Propositions 57 and 58. Spots advocating both sides of another budget measure, Proposition 56, are also running statewide, along with ads for Proposition 55, a school bond proposal.
Beyond the absence of advertising in the Senate race, the contest has drawn scant television coverage. Not a single camera crew showed up at a Jones stop last week on a farm near Oxnard.
"Unless your candidate is golfing with O.J. Simpson or visiting Neverland Ranch, they don't get media attention," said Marin spokesman Kevin Spillane.