Reporting from Sacramento — Charging that Republicans have tried to systematically dismantle the American dream, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein urged state Democrats to challenge the "radical" GOP agenda in Washington and turn their energies to reelecting President Obama.
California's senior senator did not mention her own 2012 bid for a fourth full term as she spoke at the state Democratic Party convention. Instead, she flayed at the House Republican majority, which she said is "more radical, more hostile to working people, more determined to undermine a Democratic president than the [Newt] Gingrich Congress in 1995."
She said "tea party" representatives have no plans for job creation or economic recovery, but only "a radical, ideological agenda to dismantle the social and economic safety net of our country."
Feinstein described the budget plan outlined by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), which would to turn Medicare into a voucher program and make Medicaid a state block grant program, as a "concerted assault on women, seniors and working people" in favor of tax cuts for the rich.
"Ladies and gentlemen, it is wrong. It must be stopped," Feinstein said to applause.
Although Feinstein did not use her appearance as an early campaign kickoff, there was little suspense about her plans. When pressed by reporters about when she would make an announcement, she said simply, "My plan is to run."
The former San Francisco mayor, 77, has long been viewed as the Goliath of Democratic politics in California.
"She is probably the most popular political brand in California," said GOP strategist Rob Stutzman, a top advisor to former gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman. "She's a stateswoman, and is seen as a prominent leader in D.C. whether she is in a majority or minority. We'd love to defeat her, but she is taken seriously as a thoughtful leader."
With no strong contenders on the horizon, few expect Feinstein's 2012 race to be much different than her recent contests.
Her last tough race was in 1994, when she narrowly defeated then-Rep. Michael Huffington, who spent $30 million on his bid. Since then, she has drawn underfunded challengers and crushed them at the polls — winning by 19 points in 2000 and by 24 points in 2006.
Dan Schnur, director of USC's Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, said the strongest contenders have shied away from challenging Feinstein because the odds are better elsewhere.
"There's likely to be a Republican candidate with two arms, two legs and opposable thumbs," Schnur said. "Beyond that, the most formidable candidates are probably going to lean toward either a campaign for governor or [Sen. Barbara] Boxer's next race."
The 2012 election year presents special challenges for Republicans, as they will have to overcome their registration disadvantage while Obama's forces are pouring resources into the Democratic turnout.
Even GOP chairman Tom Del Beccaro acknowledged the hurdles in recruiting a candidate to take her on.
"Dianne's a very difficult task — it would really have to be a good environment," Del Beccaro said. "I understand that, but I'm optimistic someone is going to step up."
The chairman said party elders might be able to coax radio personality Michael Reagan or Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) to enter the race. But Issa's spokesman said he was focused on his duties as a chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in Washington, and Reagan did not respond to requests for comment.
Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Palm Springs) also has been mentioned, but her chief of staff said she intends to run for reelection. Former state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, who lost the Republican gubernatorial primary in 2010, has indicated that he would like run for office again, but his spokesman declined to comment on the Senate race.
Feinstein has been stockpiling money for her run, holding three to four fundraisers each month. She recently reported $4.3 million in cash on hand, a tally that her strategist Bill Carrick said was the second highest in the Senate.
Still, Feinstein could face some challenges. Strategists from both parties say that her age and long tenure in Washington could be liabilities. In a March Field Poll, Feinstein's approval rating stood at 48% — several points lower than it was a year before her previous election campaigns. Only about 46% of California voters said they were inclined to reelect her in 2012, while 42% said they were not.
If Feinstein were to decide to retire, Schnur said there would be "the 21st century political equivalent of the California Gold Rush" with candidates from both parties racing to the starting line.
Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, who all drew warm responses from the party faithful at Saturday's convention, are seen as Democratic contenders. An open race also could tempt high-profile GOP House members, including Issa or House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield.
But Feinstein seems intent on running, even if an announcement is a ways off.
Asked what issues she intended to focus on in her campaign, she paused: "My main theme — can I tell you later?" she said. "Let me tell you later."