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Democrats: Incumbent Barbara Boxer of Greenbrae, John Pinkerton of Pinon Hills. Republicans: John Brown of Stockton, Linh Dao of Fremont, Matt Fong of Los Angeles, Darrell Issa of Vista, Mark Raus of Rancho Cordova, Frank Riggs of Napa. American Independent: H. Joseph Perrin of Sacramento. Libertarian: Ted Brown of San Gabriel. Natural Law: Brian Rees of Pacific Palisades. Peace and Freedom: Ophie Beltran of Toluca Lake. Reform: Timothy Erich of Oakdale.

One year ago, Republicans were literally licking their chops about the coming campaign against incumbent Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer. Barely elected in 1992 despite a Democratic landslide and an opponent considered too conservative for the state, Boxer has spent most of her first term in the Senate at or near the top of the GOP's national target list. In the minds of most Republicans, Boxer was toast.

The GOP has gotten some rude surprises on the road to unseating Boxer. Most of them have been bad, as one by one, primo GOP candidates either dropped out or refused to drop in. The three remaining contenders are viewed privately by many Republicans as the "C Team" - a plodding statewide office holder with campaign finance problems, a little-known congressman who ran for Senate to avoid being unseated at home, and a dark-horse millionaire conservative with a loose tongue. Yet, with all those unwelcome developments, the biggest surprise of them all is this: The Republicans still have a better than decent chance to beat Boxer.

The snake which has bitten the GOP in this contest appeared early in 1997. The list of prospective candidates was long indeed, including members of Congress, statewide office holders, and prominent local leaders. Among those most prominently mentioned were Representatives David Dreier of Glendale, Christopher Cox of Orange County, and even Sonny Bono of Palm Springs, who had run in the 1992 primary before being elected to Congress. Statewide officeholders eyeing a run included Secretary of State Bill Jones. There was also the ever-present talk of a celebrity candidate, such as Charlton Heston or Tom Selleck. Surely it wouldn't be that tough to find someone to take on Boxer.

When the call went out for volunteers to step forward, however, most took one step back. Having survived the 1996 elections with their majority intact, Republican House members preferred to enjoy the fruits of their seniority, rather than accept a place at the end of the line. Congress found themselves moving into positions of power and prominence in the House. Why go back to the end of the seniority line in the Senate when the future looks so bright in the House? Jones took a look at the race, but as his ambitions have tended toward the governorship, he quickly rerouted his attention to a bid for re-election. The celebrities were never seriously considered.

As the field settled out in late 1997, the Republican race seemed to be centered mostly on two people - state Treasurer Matt Fong, San Diego Mayor Susan Golding, and car alarm magnate Darrell Issa. Fong had won a surprise victory in 1994 over the better-funded Phil Angelides in the treasurer's race and though he was hardly a fireball on the stump, he was viewed as a potent fund raiser. Golding was the "golden girl" of the 1996 GOP convention in San Diego, as the mayor of the host city. Issa, whose personal worth is estimated at $200 million, was the great unknown, mentioned mostly for his money, but viewed by many Republicans as too conservative to compete statewide against Boxer.

Golding appeared to match up the best against Boxer. A moderate pro-choice woman, she would negate many of the natural advantages Boxer had enjoyed in her first run against conservative talk show host Bruce Herschensohn. She also had the Pete Wilson campaign team in her corner. But the unlucky snake took another bite. Golding found herself shackled by a brewing local controversy over the reconditioning of the stadium in San Diego. The controversy kept her off the statewide hustings and, more important, off the fund raising circuit. Finally, in mid January, Golding threw in the towel.

While Golding was faltering, Issa was using his personal wealth to begin the long process of familiarizing voters with exactly who he is. Issa's first round of advertising, a $2 million radio buy, was surprising because it shunned the traditional biographical approach used in most introductory spots, and went straight after Boxer. "I'm running because Barbara Boxer is one of the worst senators in California history," Issa said in the self-voiced spots. Armed with many alumni of Herschensohn's campaign, the pro-life, anti-gun control Issa set about consolidating the conservative wing of the Republican Party.

The best known of the three was Fong, the first-term treasurer and adopted son of former Secretary of State March Fong Eu. As an Asian-American, Fong seemed an ideal choice to blunt some of the negative fallout Republicans had suffered among minority voters in 1996, a fallout precipitated by the party's stance in support of the immigration initiative, Proposition 187 and the anti-affirmative action measure, Proposition 209. Fong also had built a reputation as a solid fund raiser and had secured some solid early endorsements.

But the treasurer also had no shortage of shortcomings. He made a rookie mistake early on when he jumped the gun on an endorsement from former President George Bush. Bush has not endorsed in the race. He openly, and seemingly unapologetically, dodges questions regarding his stance on abortion rights, the issue that helped propel Boxer to the Senate in 1992. Fong insists he won't be labeled either "pro-choice or pro-life." And as the GOP-led Congress began investigating ties between the Clinton reelection campaign and Asian business interests, it was learned that Fong had accepted some $100,000 from those self-same interests. He returned the money, along with several hundred thousand more later that came to be viewed as tainted. Fong insists he did nothing wrong, and only returned the contributions to avoid the appearance of impropriety.

With Fong's campaign listing and Issa's television campaign bringing his own poll numbers up, Republican moderates started throwing out a lot of names, including that of outgoing Governor Pete Wilson and even television actor Tom Selleck. But in the end, the only name added to the candidate list was that of Frank Riggs, a congressman from the North Coast. Virtually unknown outside his home district, Riggs is known within political circles for having unseated an incumbent Democrat in 1990, lost his re-election bid to a Democrat in 1992, and re-taken the seat from that same Democrat in 1994.

Riggs' entry in the race added another name plate to the first round of candidate debates and forums. But apart from the help of veteran GOP consultant Ed Rollins, Riggs brings little in the way of money or name identification to the race. Many believe his entry was simply a face-saving gesture to avoid an almost certain defeat in his congressional re-election bid.

With Issa moving into a slight lead in a spring Field Poll, it seemed clear that the millionaire had become the target everyone would be shooting at. But Issa had already begun turning his fire onto Boxer. The feisty Marin County mom's political career has been a remarkable combination of opportunism and luck, and by most accounts that luck is holding so far, at least in her ability to avoid a top grade GOP rival. But Boxer isn't out of the woods yet. Her negative rating in the most recent Field Poll pushed 40 percent - remarkably high for an incumbent. When matched up against her rivals in an open primary, Boxer pulls only 42 percent - well above the others, but well below the 50 percent considered an incumbent's safety zone.

With Issa's penchant for speaking off the cuff (in March he was forced to apologize for a comment about Hitler and the Jews), the 44-year-old millionaire can expect to learn just how tough a business politics can be between now and June. If he can hold off Fong, Issa - along with Boxer - will be giving the same lesson to the voters from June until November.

-- Article by Steve Scott

This page first published May 22, 1998

Last updated May 22, 1998

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