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No break, and no niceties, in general election races

Days after primary, Carly Fiorina insults her opponent's hair and Jerry Brown invokes Nazi comparisons. Strategists bemoan the ugly words and the focus on style rather than on substantive policy differences.

June 13, 2010|By Robin Abcarian, Los Angeles Times

Only days have passed since Republicans and Democrats picked their candidates in high-profile contests for the state's governorship and one of its U.S. Senate seats. If California voters thought they'd be treated to a gracious interlude before the general election starts in earnest, they can forget it.

Voters barely had time to absorb the historic nomination of two women to the top of the statewide Republican ticket before the insults began to fly.

A day after the primary, Republican Senate candidate Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive, was caught on an open microphone making a remark worthy of an insecure seventh-grader about her Democratic opponent, Sen. Barbara Boxer: "God, what is that hair? Sooooo yesterday."

Moments later, Fiorina's campaign sent its first e-mail blast of a new regular feature: "Boxer Bites."

Then Jerry Brown, the Democrats' candidate for governor, weighed in, making a heavy-handed comparison between the campaign tactics of his opponent, Meg Whitman, and Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels.

High-profile campaigns spend fortunes constructing the policy positions and political strategies they think will carry them to victory. But the events of the last week show how quickly issues of style, gaffes and the like can complicate the plans of even the best-financed or most experienced campaigns.

In the Senate contest, those stylistic points may matter even more than usual because Boxer and Fiorina have a lot of the same vulnerabilities.

Both are known for their sometimes prickly demeanor and can come off as condescending and sarcastic on occasion. Because she has been in the public eye for nearly 18 years as a senator, many Californians already have observed those qualities in Boxer.

But they may be taken aback to see them in Fiorina, who moments before insulting Boxer's coif had also criticized Whitman, whom she would soon embrace at a victory rally, for choosing to be interviewed by Fox News' Sean Hannity.

"I think it's a very bad choice, actually," said Fiorina, who fiddled with her BlackBerry, chatted with staff and failed to suppress a yawn as she waited to be interviewed by a Sacramento TV station. "You know how he is."

The gaffe prompted longtime Republican media strategist Nicolle Wallace to rebuke Fiorina. "She is a good and decent person, she is better than that woman in the video," Wallace said Friday.

In an essay about the gaffe in the Daily Beast on Thursday, Wallace wrote, "Women will continue to take two steps forward and three steps back until they drop the sorority girl act and become the statesmen and leaders we all need." As a top aide to Sen. John McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, in the 2008 presidential campaign, Wallace witnessed some of the unique challenges female candidates face.

Fiorina, she said, "should apologize for being catty and move on. Every gaffe can be an opportunity to show some grace."

But Fiorina had already dug in her heels. "My hair's been talked about by a million people, you know?" she told Fox News' Greta Van Susteren. "As you remember, I started out with none," she said, alluding to her treatment last year for stage 2 breast cancer.

In an interview Sunday with Chris Wallace of Fox News, Fiorina said, "I regret this whole situation. I gave people the opportunity to talk about something petty and superficial. And this is a very serious election year about serious issues.‬"

When asked whether she had apologized to Boxer, Fiorina changed the subject: "You know, what I think I owe the voters is a commitment to stay focused on facts, on issues and on the things that really matter."

Fiorina, as the GOP strategist and others have noted, is often very charming and polished. But she can display a chief executive's impatience and hauteur when she is challenged or contradicted.

Boxer also does not suffer disrespect gladly. Sometimes her brusqueness is a political calculation designed to appease supporters, a phenomenon familiar to anyone who has watched senators hold forth during televised hearings. Other times, it comes across as pique.

"I think part of that comes from what it takes to work your way into two of the most exclusive men's clubs in the world — the U.S. Senate or CEO of a Fortune 20 company," said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. "These are the strategies and tactics that they have taken to get there."

Still, Walsh bemoaned the inevitable, and sexist, "cat fight" narrative that takes hold when women compete and Fiorina's part in hastening it. "Her comment feeds this image that when women run against each other, they're getting down and dirty and clawing each others' eyes out."

For months, Fiorina has battered away at Boxer's personal style, slamming her as rude and elitist. She has helped popularize a paraphrase of a Boxer quote — "Don't call me ma'am" — that has become a Republican meme in the last year.

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