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Bill Jones' Campaign Quandary

With only tepid support from Bush, the GOP challenger to Sen. Boxer could use a boost from the governor -- who so far has kept his distance.

September 05, 2004|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

Bill Jones strode to the podium at the Republican National Convention last week and, in a speech that lasted two minutes, took a telling verbal detour.

Whereas fellow Republican Senate candidates delivered tag-team endorsements of President Bush, Jones mentioned the head of the Republican ticket only once, almost as an afterthought, while praising a certain former movie actor three times.

"The California dream is alive and well with Arnold Schwarzenegger as our new governor," Jones said during the convention's opening hours, his voice echoing through New York City's mostly empty Madison Square Garden. "With his dynamic leadership, and that of President Bush, we've seen a reinvigorated economy and an increased stature for the Golden State, and we're not going back."

As the campaign for California's U.S. Senate seat enters its final two-month run, Jones' short speech a continent away accented one of the key difficulties of his quest to unseat two-term incumbent Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer.

Support from Bush -- which seems tepid at best -- won't do Jones much good in a state where only two of five likely voters say they back the president. And though a public embrace from Schwarzenegger, whose job-approval rating stands above 60%, might help, the freshman governor so far has kept Jones at arm's length.

This is Jones' quandary. Despite campaign swings by such high-profile Republicans as Vice President Dick Cheney, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and Sen. John McCain, the Republican Party has not given Jones the kind of support it has given candidates in other states, a disengagement that has left the former Fresno-area rancher mired in a political bog of low name recognition, low fundraising and low voter interest.

The lukewarm Boxer-Jones campaign seems at odds with the candidates themselves. Each is capable of a hard fight, and, together, they offer what voters say they want -- real choices both in substance and in strategies, with Jones running as a conservative waving Schwarzenegger's bipartisan flag and Boxer seeking to make her race a referendum on national policies by campaigning against Bush as much as against Jones.

The election is the first chance since last year's rambunctious recall for voters to define the state's political soul. Republicans hoped that Schwarzenegger's win meant a political change of wind, but Jones' lagging efforts could confirm that Gov. Gray Davis' recall was the result of the specifics of the moment -- a disgruntled electorate and a high-energy newcomer with Hollywood star power -- rather than a fundamental shift among the state's voters.

"Given the current polarization of the electorate, it is unlikely that even the support of Schwarzenegger will translate into many votes for Republican candidates among the Democrats and the Democratic-leaning independents," said Mark Baldassare, research director for the Public Policy Institute of California. "Schwarzenegger's support, however, could help to convince the independent voters who are not leaning Democratic to support Jones in the fall election."

Though Schwarzenegger has become more partisan in recent days -- he compared the Democratic National Convention to one of his films, "True Lies," and may stump for Bush in the Midwest -- he stands to lose more than gain by helping Jones.

"Jones is going down to defeat and Schwarzenegger can't save him," said Shaun Bowler, a political analyst at UC Riverside. "Arnold only backs winners. That way he can claim to have helped them win in the first place. Once he begins to back losers, then that image fails. So Schwarzenegger going down with him would hurt the governor's standing and the carefully polished image that he can bend public opinion to his will."

Jones does face a daunting task. Most recent surveys have found about a 15-point lead for Boxer, with about 10% undecided -- not much room to maneuver for Jones.

With five Senate candidates on the ballot, voters have their pick along the political continuum. But the race is largely between Boxer and Jones, as different in style as they are on the issues.

Jones, tall and rugged-looking, is seemingly ill at ease in a suit despite more than two decades in politics. Boxer is on the low side of 5 feet tall -- she jokes about the "Boxer box" she stands on so she can be seen over a lectern -- and after 40 years on the West Coast still has the brassy tones of her native Brooklyn.

A tough competitor, she is campaigning under the assumption that no lead is safe even though she has far outpaced Jones in fundraising. At the last reporting period June 30, Boxer held a $6-million lead in cash on hand.

"Now the polls look good for me," Boxer said, "but I believe this race will tighten, and I believe it will be tight."

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