The Republican race to unseat Barbara Boxer was always volatile, with a multimillionaire businesswoman and a scrappy candidate embraced by the "tea party" movement competing for the right to challenge the three-term senator. But former Rep. Tom Campbell's late entry into the Republican primary seven weeks ago has markedly altered the dynamics of the race.
The Silicon Valley moderate instantly became the front-runner, forcing former Hewlett-Packard chief and presumptive leader Carly Fiorina from a campaign focused largely on Democrat Boxer into a far more aggressive posture against her fellow Republican.
Since then, the race has largely centered on Campbell and Fiorina, seeming to debunk the theory that Campbell would cut into her votes and thus boost the chances of the conservative underdog, Assemblyman Chuck DeVore of Anaheim.
On Friday, the tension among the three GOP candidates will play out in their first campaign debate, a verbal face-off that few think would have occurred this early had the primary remained a clash between Fiorina and DeVore. "Campbell really has given us an opportunity to talk about substantive things in this race," said Joshua Trevino, a spokesman for DeVore. "Carly is forced to realize she's not Boxer's opponent quite yet and may not be."
Until Campbell entered the race, Fiorina was running a classic front-runner's campaign, rarely mentioning DeVore or the primary.
"With all her money, she figured that she could assume the nomination and concentrate on the general" election. "Tom Campbell changed all that," said Jack Pitney, a Claremont McKenna College government professor and former GOP national official. "It's also why she immediately focused fire on him."
The most glaring example is the "demon sheep" ad, a widely watched -- and just as widely panned -- online video that features a field of grazing sheep, which were supposed to represent fiscal conservatives, and one demonic-looking interloper, a man in a sheep suit with blazing red eyes who was supposed to represent Campbell.
Fiorina has also attacked Campbell's Middle East policy, criticizing two attempts he made in Congress to trim economic aid to Israel and accusing him of connections with people who support terrorism. (DeVore joined in the assault on Campbell's foreign policy record).
"She hit the panic button from Day One and honestly bordered on hysteria," said Ray McNally, Campbell's strategist. "Without Tom Campbell in the race, Carly would have been just assuming she was going to be the anointed one."
But early polls for the primary indicate that none of the candidates is particularly well known by voters, nor are their policy positions. And that suggests a potential for gyrations before the June election.
Some say, for example, that Campbell's entrance into the race could help Fiorina define herself. Many voters wrongly assume she is a social moderate; Campbell's more liberal stances -- he supports abortion rights and gay marriage -- could sharpen the contrast to her benefit. Alternatively, Campbell's lead could harden -- or DeVore could break out with the assistance of grass-roots conservatives.
A challenging primary fight could be good training for the general election, particularly if the nominee is Fiorina, who is making her first run for elected office and has had a rocky debut.
"It makes it more difficult for Carly," said Stuart K. Spencer, an advisor to GOP candidates for more than 40 years and a Fiorina supporter. But "whoever wins the primary will probably be a better candidate because they were well-contested."
Fiorina's campaign team hopes her willingness to mix it up with Campbell will give Republicans confidence that she could navigate a race against Boxer, who has proved to be a wily competitor in her three previous statewide elections.
"Sometimes the easy race isn't the best course for a first-time candidate," said Marty Wilson, Fiorina's campaign manager.
The debate Friday follows a particularly contentious period as the candidates tussled over Campbell's record. While ostensibly about the level of support he has shown for Israel, the three-way dispute also had a strategic component: The evangelical conservatives who fiercely back Israel also happen to be a key Republican voting bloc.
Campbell called for the debate after Fiorina began attacking his Mideast policy. DeVore quickly agreed to it, and then Fiorina accepted the invitation. The debate will be hosted by Eric Hogue during his Sacramento-based "The Capitol Hour" on KTKZ-AM (1380).
Unlike her competitors, who will be in the studio, Fiorina will take part by phone. Her campaign said she'd call in from her home but could not attend in person.
As she goes up against two veteran politicians experienced at verbal jousting, Fiorina may find herself in the spotlight as the newcomer, Pitney said.
"DeVore knows the issues cold; Campbell knows the issues cold," he said. "The question is: How well does Fiorina know the issues?"