Calif. Senate race a referendum on Boxer

October 23, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

LOS ANGELES -- Two contrasting scenes here the other day portray the nature of the fight for California's Senate seat between incumbent Democrat Barbara Boxer and her Republican challenger, state treasurer Matt Fong.

In bright sunshine, Ms. Boxer stood on the steps of a major hospital trauma center, citing the deadly statistics -- 40,000 fatalities a year from guns, including 5,000 children. Ms. Boxer declared: "My opponent says we don't need any more gun laws. . . . We don't need another senator marching lock step with the gun lobby."

Ms. Boxer's appearance at the trauma center, which averages as many as five gunshot cases a day, was reinforcing a television ad labeling Mr. Fong the gun lobby's candidate. That ad, along with another saying he is "not pro-choice" on abortion, is aimed in the final days of this close race at women voters, to whom polls say the gun and abortion issues have particular salience.

After attracting Democratic, Republican and independent women voters to her candidacy in 1992, the highly partisan Ms. Boxer has dropped somewhat among GOP women. She needs them to make up for serious slippage, according to the Field Poll, among Democratic males.

A few hours after Ms. Boxer's appearance at the trauma center, Matt Fong was holding forth in an entirely different setting -- on the back lawn of an incredibly posh Beverly Hills home of a wealthy backer. The hostess reported that the 350 guests were contributing $70,000 to the Fong campaign.

In a reversal of customary financial fortunes, the Republican challenger finds himself being outspent by a wide margin by the Democrat. Ms. Boxer's incumbency has enabled her to raise about $12 million for her re-election campaign to $7.8 million by Mr. Fong. So the Beverly Hills fund-raiser was essential to his chances.

Even more so is the size of the dollar transfusion Mr. Fong is getting from the national party in Washington. Federal campaign finance limits specify that the most it can give Mr. Fong is $3 million, and so far it reportedly has sent him only about one third of that. The result has been much howling from California Republican operatives.

Mike Russell, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee in Washington, responds that the party has "a number of competitive U.S. Senate races" . . . and we are doing everything we can to get resources there."

It is no secret that California, because of its size and many and expensive television media markets, poses a major problem for a national party striving to win enough seats to make the Senate veto-proof next year. (It has 55 now and needs five more.) Instead of sending the additional $2 million to Mr. Fong, several of the other smaller states could be adequately financed.

Another problem for Mr. Fong is that he is much less well-known than Ms. Boxer in the state. But it is also true that he is less controversial than Ms. Boxer, and he has a moderate image that can appeal to the Republican women and Democratic men Ms. Boxer seeks to retain.

By hammering on such issues as gun control, abortion and the environment, Ms. Boxer has sought to define Mr. Fong as an "extremist," to the point of showing him with House Speaker Newt Gingrich in one television ad that says "extremists have tried to restrict women's right to choose." Mr. Fong insists that if elected he would not try to overturn Roe vs. Wade, but he does oppose partial-birth abortions and favors parental consent for abortions on minors.

In the end, however, this election will be a referendum on Ms. Boxer.

Jack Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 10/23/98

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