Boxer's past Senate campaigns unlike this year's

Boxer's past Senate campaigns unlike this year's
Sen. Barbara Boxer
WASHINGTON (AP) — California Democrat Barbara Boxer has been charmed in her three previous runs for the Senate.

Her first race was in 1992, nicknamed the Year of the Woman, when female voters in California made their presence felt after the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Her re-election campaign six years later came as California's economy sailed along and as voters felt more optimistic about the country's direction than just about any other time in the last quarter century.

Her third Senate campaign took place as the ranks of Democrats soared in California and in the midst of growing anger and pessimism about the war in Iraq. Boxer was one of the war's leading critics.

No politician wins three terms to the U.S. Senate without a strong resume and campaign presence, but it's also clear that Boxer has run under favorable political conditions that bear little resemblance to what she faces this year.

One of the Senate's most liberal members finds herself battling for a fourth term amid a struggling economy, a general anti-incumbent mood and persistent Republican criticism of government spending.

Another potential vulnerability for Boxer: Republican challenger Carly Fiorina is her first female challenger in a Senate race, muting a potential advantage in a state where women comprise the majority of the electorate.

That's why the race between Boxer and Fiorina is considered a toss-up, even in a state that tilts heavily Democratic in statewide elections.

"It's the first time Barbara Boxer has run when she's swimming against the tide instead of with the tide," said Ken Khachigian, a campaign adviser for Fiorina.

Boxer is aware she has a fight on her hands: The most recent fundraising reports show she has more than $11 million in the bank and expects to spend at least $35 million. But she adamantly disputes any contention that the political climate is worse now than during previous races.

"I think my first race was tougher, and I think my race with Matt Fong was tougher," Boxer said.

Indeed, Boxer has consistently said all her races have been tough, and for the most part, she's right, but she appears to be discounting some of the favorable events she had going for her in her previous races.

In her first Senate race, California was going through difficult economic times, with unemployment nearing double digits, but there were no incumbents to blame.

Fellow Democrat Dianne Feinstein also ran that year in a special election. Electing two women to the U.S. Senate represented a historic opportunity that enticed more women to go to the polls. Women made up 53 percent of the voters in the 1992 general election, up 2 percentage points from the election four years earlier.

"Women were strongly for both of those candidates," said Mark DiCamillo, director of the nonpartisan California Field Poll, "and women were a majority of the voters."

Even so, the race didn't break Boxer's way until the campaign's final days, when GOP challenger Bruce Herschensohn was confronted by a Democratic operative at a campaign stop and accused of visiting strip clubs. He acknowledged visiting a strip club once, but the issue dominated the airwaves and helped Boxer win by a 48 percent to 43 percent margin. By comparison, Feinstein won her race 54 percent to 38 percent.

Six year later, it would be hard to find a better time to run as an incumbent. The state's unemployment rate hovered at around 5.5 percent most of the year and 57 percent of California voters believed the country was moving in the right direction — the second highest yearly total in the Field Poll's history. The issue that voters most wanted the candidates to talk about was education — at 31 percent. Jobs and the economy ran a distant third at 6 percent.

Democrats dominated the statewide races, with Gray Davis winning the governor's race by 20 percentage points. Boxer defeated Republican Matt Fong, 53 percent to 43 percent, even though Fong actually led in the polls a month before the election.

Boxer received fundraising help from the Clinton White House, with the president, first lady and then-Vice President Al Gore making California visits. Meanwhile, the National Republican Senatorial Committee never came through with the financial help Fong said he was promised.

This year, the committee says it has set aside more than $1.7 million for television ads to help Fiorina in the final week of the Senate race.

Boxer's third Senate race in 2004 was by far her easiest. California had become so reliably Democratic that neither of the two presidential candidates bothered to travel to the state or advertise there. Boxer's opponent, former secretary of state Bill Jones, could never muster the money to challenge Boxer.

Meanwhile, Boxer enjoyed solid approval ratings, with 49 percent of voters holding a favorable opinion of her during the summer of 2004, versus 36 percent holding an unfavorable opinion. Today, more voters view her unfavorably. A Field Poll conducted in July showed that 52 percent of likely voters had an unfavorable opinion of her.

Another danger sign for Boxer is that an overwhelming majority of voters, 79 percent, believe the state is seriously off track. Just 13 percent think California is moving in the right direction, according to a recent Field Poll.

The state has had multibillion dollar budget deficits for the past several years and an unemployment rate stuck above 12 percent for months. Fiorina has tried to capitalize on anger over the struggling economy, saying Boxer and the Democrats' economic stimulus package have failed to create sufficient private-sector jobs.

Despite the trouble signs for Boxer, Fong said he learned by experience that Boxer should never be counted out.

"She's a feisty political street fighter," he said. "I respect Carly's prowess. She's a quick study and she's articulate. If she gets her message out there, I think she can put Boxer away. But there's a lot of ifs in that."