The campaign to choose a Republican challenger for incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer ends Tuesday, with many California voters still undecided.
What should have been the GOP's marquee primary contest was nearly ignored by voters for months -- an overlooked second act next to the state's celebrity governor and his pitch for two ballot initiatives. The race was filled with candidates who started late -- some declaring on the Dec. 5 filing deadline -- and held scattered and low-key public events that drew virtually no television coverage.
With few paid TV commercials or much direct mail to prod voters, the race sometimes seemed as if it never really started.
The front-runner, former Secretary of State Bill Jones, earned the title by being the only one of the four major GOP candidates to have run statewide. He grabbed an early endorsement from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger but was out-raised in contributions by two challengers, former U.S. Treasurer Rosario Marin, the choice of the state's GOP female legislators, and former Los Altos Hills Mayor Toni Casey.
Former Assemblyman Howard Kaloogian, running from the right, hadn't raised as much money but got more attention for his early criticism of President Bush's plan to allow illegal immigrants to obtain guest-worker status and for advocating the recall of Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer if he failed to end San Francisco's issuance of marriage licenses to gay couples. His radio and cable television ads have featured his endorsement by conservative Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks).
Another six Republican candidates fill out the primary ballot: Danney Ball of Hemet, Barry L. Hatch of Arcadia, Bill Quraishi of El Granada, James Stewart of Temecula, Tim Stoen of Eureka and John M. Van Zandt of Upland.
A Los Angeles Times poll found that among likely GOP primary voters, Jones is ahead with 44%; followed by Kaloogian, 12%; Casey, 10%; and Marin, 8%.
But 24% remain undecided and 36% of those who named a favored candidate said they might change their minds.
Voters would have been more focused on their choices if some of the "A team" candidates who considered the race -- including Reps. Mary Bono (R-Palm Springs) and David Dreier (R-Glendora) -- had followed through, said John J. Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and author of "The Art of Political Warfare."
Even though Boxer has consistently been less popular statewide than colleague Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Californian Republicans have twice failed to defeat her, he said. She has raised about $10 million for the November general election -- 10 times the amount raised by her closest Republican fund-raising challengers.
Pitney said voter indecision over who should take on Boxer probably influenced donors, who track popularity and like to go with a sure winner.
But the high number of undecided voters has been heralded as good news by several candidates hoping to pull a surprise victory.
"The Senate race is still wide open, and their vote will make a difference," said Kevin Spillane, consultant for Marin. The former treasurer was the first to raise $1 million but has stayed in single-digits in preference polls throughout the campaign. "The majority of voters are undecided, so it's very unpredictable. It'll go down to the wire."
Marin has made electability a key platform, arguing that, as a Latina who supports abortion rights, she neutralizes some of the polarizing issues that Boxer used to beat commentator Bruce Herschensohn in 1992 and former state Treasurer Matt Fong in 1998.
Marin has likened herself to Schwarzenegger, saying she is a nontraditional candidate and an immigrant success story. She has asked voters to take a chance and overlook her first-time candidate status.
Casey also has argued throughout the campaign that she would be a better fall candidate because of a closer fit with general-election voters than other, more conservative options. She has focused on economic issues throughout the campaign, drawing on her experience as an executive in the Small Business Administration.
Jones' appeal has rested in large part on his past electability -- winning statewide office as secretary of state twice in tough Republican years and earlier in legislative districts where Democrats outnumbered Republican voters. He has touted his legislative record, including writing the state's three-strikes law mandating life terms for triple-convicted felons. He has spent much of the campaign criticizing Boxer's record on defense and spending.
In the only other contested primary, Orange County Superior Court Judge James P. Gray is facing frequent candidate Gail Lightfoot of Oakland to become the Libertarian Party nominee.
Voters in other parties will have an easier choice Tuesday. Boxer is unopposed, as is American Independent candidate John J. Grundmann of San Leandro, and Peace and Freedom candidate Marsha Feinland of Oakland.
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(R-Los Altos Hills)