LOS ANGELES -- To paraphrase Mark Twain, who once said reports of his death were "greatly exaggerated," it may be premature to write Sen. Barbara Boxer's political obituary in her re-election bid against State Treasurer Matt Fong.
Just a few weeks ago, the Democratic incumbent trailed her lesser-known Republican challenger, 48 percent to 44 percent, in Mervin Field's California Poll and seemed headed for defeat. But a new survey by the Los Angeles Times has her ahead, 49 percent to 44 percent. The turnaround is tied to Boxer's aggressively negative campaign against Fong, a relative moderate she has been painting as a right-wing conservative in the mold of House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Boxer has raised and spent more money than Fong -- despite the fact that of the 15 Democratic senators facing the voters this fall, she is probably the one the Republican Party would most like to oust.
Boxer's relentless feminism and prickly manner have caused many Republicans -- and some Democrats -- to seethe. Her unfavorable poll ratings match her favorable scores. Clearly, the Senate election is a referendum on Boxer, with Fong essentially the vehicle with whom her foes hope to run her out of Congress.
The Nov. 3 election will be close, says Roy Behr, Boxer's media consultant, "partly because Barbara engenders strong passions in both directions." Fellow liberals, abortion-rights activists, advocates of gun control and environmentalists are strongly for her; activists on the other side of those issues can't stand her.
The bombardment of television commercials against Fong, Behr says, has put a face on issue positions held by an opponent who was "a nonentity" to most voters. His mother, former California Secretary of State, March Fong Eu, is a Democrat and much better known than her son.
So, far Fong's response to the Boxer ads has been relatively mild and defensive. He concentrates on defusing allegations that he is an "extremist" on the issues that Boxer hopes will solidify and turn out her base of liberal Democrats and women's groups.
In her ads and on the stump, Boxer accuses Fong of wanting to throw out Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. He accuses her of "distortion, lying and misleading" the voters about his position on the issue. He says he disagrees with the high court's ruling but would not try to reverse it. He does, however, differ from Boxer by opposing a controversial late-term abortion procedure and favoring parental consent for minors seeking an abortion.
Boxer has also been hammering at Fong as a tool of the gun lobby. Appearing at a hospital trauma center the other day where handgun control activist Sarah Brady endorsed her as "an amazing dynamo," Boxer said of Fong: "We don't need another senator marching in lock step with the gun lobby."
Boxer favors a ban on the sale of all cheap handguns. Fong disagrees and urges harsher criminal penalties for the use of guns in violent crimes.
'Year of the Woman'
Boxer was elected to the Senate in 1992, dubbed "The Year of the Woman," along with fellow Californian Dianne Feinstein, Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois and Patty Murray of Washington. Feinstein, who was elected to fill a two-year vacancy, was re-elected in 1994. But this year, Murray is considered to be in a tight race, and Moseley-Braun, in the wake of some personal and financial scandals, is widely expected to lose.
Because Boxer is anathema to so many Republicans, it had been expected that the national party would send Fong the maximum financial support permitted under federal law -- about $3 million for the nation's most populous state. But California party leaders complained last week that the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee were shortchanging Fong just when he most needed their financial help, perhaps because polls indicated he was slipping.
A spokesman for the senatorial committee, Mike Russell, observed that "a number of competitive U.S. Senate races, in Wisconsin, Nevada, Kentucky and South Carolina," also had to be supported. "We recognize California as competitive as well," he said, "and we are doing everything we can to get resources there."
But California Republicans speculated that the national party might have decided that its available money would be spent more effectively in the other competitive states, where there are fewer television markets.
The national party is also concerned it could lose two Senate seats, in New York and North Carolina, where the incumbents have strong Democratic opposition. A prime GOP objective next week is a net gain of five Senate seats, giving the Republicans 60, a filibuster-proof majority.