GOP support lagging for Senate hopeful

Californian is trying to unseat Democrat Boxer

The Nation

September 06, 2004|By Scott Martelle | Scott Martelle,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Bill Jones strode to the podium at the Republican National Convention last week and, in a speech that lasted two minutes, took a telling verbal detour.

As fellow Republican Senate candidates delivered tag-team endorsements of President Bush, Jones mentioned the head of the Republican ticket once, almost as an afterthought, while praising a certain former movie actor three times.

"The California dream is alive and well with Arnold Schwarzenegger as our new governor," Jones said during the convention's opening hours, his voice echoing through New York City's mostly empty Madison Square Garden. "With his dynamic leadership, and that of President Bush, we've seen a reinvigorated economy and an increased stature for the Golden State, and we're not going back."

As the campaign for one of California's U.S. Senate seats enters its final two months, Jones' short speech on the other side of the continent accented one of the key difficulties of his quest to unseat two-term Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer.

Support from Bush, which seems tepid at best, won't do Jones much good in a state where two of five likely voters say they back the president. And though a public embrace from Schwarzenegger, whose job-approval rating stands above 60 percent, might help, the freshman governor so far has kept Jones at arm's length.

This is Jones' quandary. Despite campaign swings by high-profile Republicans such as Vice President Dick Cheney, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and Sen. John McCain, the Republican Party has not given Jones the kind of support it has given candidates in other states, a disengagement that has left the former Fresno-area rancher mired in a political bog of low name recognition, low fund raising and low voter interest.

The lukewarm Boxer-Jones campaign seems at odds with the candidates themselves. Each is capable of a hard fight, and, together, they offer what voters say they want -- real choices in substance and in strategies, with Jones running as a conservative waving Schwarzenegger's bipartisan flag and Boxer seeking to make the race a referendum on national policies by campaigning against Bush as much as against Jones.

The election is the first chance since last year's recall for voters to define the state's political soul. Republicans hoped Schwarzenegger's win meant a political change, but Jones' lagging efforts could confirm that Gov. Gray Davis' recall was the result of a disgruntled electorate and a high-energy newcomer with Hollywood star power, rather than a fundamental shift among the state's voters.

"It is unlikely that even the support of Schwarzenegger will translate into many votes for Republican candidates among the Democrats and the Democratic-leaning independents," said Mark Baldassare, research director for the Public Policy Institute of California. "Schwarzenegger's support, however, could help to convince the independent voters who are not leaning Democratic to support Jones in the fall election."

Most recent surveys have found about a 15-point lead for Boxer, with about 10 percent undecided -- not much room to maneuver for Jones.

Boxer is campaigning under the assumption that no lead is safe, even though at the last reporting period June 30, Boxer held a $6 million lead in cash on hand.

"Now the polls look good for me," Boxer said, "but I believe this race will tighten."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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