As they head into what could be their final debate, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer and her Republican challenger, Carly Fiorina, are appealing to voters on parallel tracks, each chipping away at the other's character on the airwaves and each trying to persuade voters that she has a superior approach to turning the economy around.
The two candidates are to face off Wednesday at 1 p.m. in an hour-long radio debate on the Patt Morrison program on KPCC-FM (89.3) and on other public radio stations around the state. The candidates will be separated by 3,000 miles: Boxer will join the forum from the studios of National Public Radio in Washington, while Fiorina will participate from the KPCC studios in Pasadena.
After being virtually tied in the polls all summer, Boxer was leading Fiorina 51% to 43% in a new poll sponsored by The Times and the USC College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences. The poll showed that margin would shift depending on which voters turn out on Nov. 2.
Over the last two weeks, Boxer and Fiorina opened a combative phase of the campaign that has altered the dynamics of the race. Boxer, who is running for her fourth term, took the opening shot two weeks ago by airing an ad that portrayed Fiorina as an imperious former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard who acquired a yacht and corporate jets while laying off some 30,000 workers and moving American jobs overseas.
After allowing Boxer's attack to go unanswered for a week on the air, Fiorina counterpunched with an ad striking similar themes, casting Boxer as an "arrogant" politician by using a clip from a congressional hearing during which she asked an Army Corps of Engineers brigadier general to call her "Senator" rather than "Ma'am."
Each candidate, in seeking to portray her rival as distant from the pressing concerns of California voters, is trying to capture the attention of voters "in the middle who are still looking for change and are frustrated," said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
"Boxer is trying to play into a stereotype of the American CEO, being uncaring and shipping jobs overseas," Duffy said. "Fiorina's ad tries to pick at the same fears" by juxtaposing Boxer quibbling over a title with a "calm, competent" Fiorina who promises to tackle what she views as an ineffective government in Washington.
Both Fiorina and Boxer have used those themes as an overlay to talk about their differing approaches to the top issue on voters' minds: jobs. In recent months, they have outlined starkly different approaches to reinvigorating the economy and different visions for the role of government.
On the campaign trail and in Washington, Boxer has continued to press for an interventionist federal government that would help lift the country out of recession with legislation such as the stimulus package, with its emphasis on creating "green" jobs, and a $26-billion spending bill intended to save teacher jobs.
The three-term senator's first spot, which began airing two days before the Hewlett-Packard ad, sought to illustrate that benevolent approach by highlighting her efforts to secure federal funding for education, veterans and the development of green jobs. And she has held many of her events at companies that have benefitted from government programs like the stimulus.
Fiorina, who has said her experience in the private sector would help bring common sense to Washington, has dismissed "big government programs" that she says have drained taxpayer dollars. She has called for extending all of President George W. Bush's tax cuts, along with other tax breaks intended to help small businesses.
This week she stepped up her campaign schedule, holding five events over the last three days while fleshing out more details of her plan to cut federal spending. She called for reducing federal spending to 20% of the gross domestic government, a proposal a number of experts said would require major structural changes to entitlement programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
The former Hewlett-Packard chief executive has also called for more debates, accepting 10 in addition to KPCC's forum today. So far none has been scheduled.