Campaign 2010 | Around the Nation

‘Left coast’ conservative turns Senate battle into a dead heat

Senator Barbara Boxer (left) and challenger Carly Fiorina in Moraga, Calif. Sept. 1. Senator Barbara Boxer (left) and challenger Carly Fiorina in Moraga, Calif. Sept. 1. (Jeff Chiu/ Associated Press)
By Mark Arsenault
Globe Staff / September 21, 2010

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GLENDALE, Calif. — High above this Los Angeles suburb, a big white cross marks the hilltop graveyard of such stars as Michael Jackson and the Three Stooges’ Larry Fine.

But it was a patch of far less hallowed ground that brought Republican US Senate candidate Carly Fiorina to a busy business district in Glendale last week.

The former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard denounced an empty lot where a child-care center was supposed to have been built with help from a federal stimulus grant designed to create jobs.

“So where are the jobs, Senator Boxer?’’ Fiorina demanded of her opponent.

With the state in an unemployment crisis, that’s what Californians are asking, too, creating the toughest reelection fight yet for US Senator Barbara Boxer.

The race is being scrutinized as a bellwether for Republican chances to capture control of the Senate. If a staunch conservative like Fiorina can win on the “left coast,’’ then Republicans might ride a wave that delivers the 10 seats they need to take the majority, specialists said.

“If this is where the desperate fight is for the Democratic Party, then this will be Custer’s last stand,’’ said Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California-Berkeley.

Polls show Boxer and Fiorina running neck-and-neck.

“This is a tough race because these are tough times,’’ said Boxer in an interview. “The people want to know whose side you’re on.’’

Over her three terms in the Senate, Boxer, 69, has been blessed with good timing, avoiding strong Republican election cycles and strong opponents, say political strategists in California.

But this year the climate could work against her. California’s jobless rate is 12.4 percent, well above the national average of 9.6. The state has historic budget problems. Voters are dispirited. Half the electorate holds an unfavorable opinion of Boxer, according to a Sept. 6 Rasmussen Reports poll of likely voters.

Enter Fiorina, a wealthy, self-made businesswoman from the highest ranks of corporate America who easily won the GOP primary and has impressed most observers with a polished speaking style and wide command of the issues.

“When she gets in front of an audience, it’s remarkable just how together she is,’’ said a California Republican strategist, Wayne Johnson. “She’s obviously a quick study.’’

Fiorina, 56, is pushing a platform of conservative staples: new tax cuts, greater free trade, a repeal of President Obama’s health care overhaul.

“I believe in Carly; as a woman and as a CEO, I can relate to her,’’ said Gayle Pacheco, 58, whose company makes industrial truck parts. Her sales are down. “I can’t believe that with all the trillions of dollars that Washington has put into this economy, that none of it has helped my small business.’’

Fiorina has attacked Boxer relentlessly on the condition of California’s economy and the size of America’s national debt, tying both to the federal stimulus Boxer supported last year.

“The unemployment rate in every county, every city, and across the state has gotten worse since the stimulus bill was passed,’’ Fiorina said in Glendale. “Not by a little, but by a lot. The facts on the ground are crystal clear.’’

But interpretations differ. The Congressional Budget Office credits the stimulus program with reducing US unemployment by at least 1.4 million jobs. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, has said the stimulus saved or created 150,000 jobs in California.

The Boxer campaign is eager to point out what it says are stimulus successes, such as restaurateur Fred Deni of Santa Monica, who credits a $265,000 stimulus loan with saving his restaurant, Back on the Beach Café.

“If the loan had not come through, I just don’t see how we would have been able to open,’’ said Deni, 62, a Boxer supporter. The loan helped Deni double his workforce, to 70, he said.

Boxer’s strategy has been to cast Fiorina as an out-of-touch fat cat. She has criticized Fiorina for shipping “30,000 American jobs’’ overseas while at Hewlett-Packard and for accepting a $21 million severance package when she was fired as CEO in 2005.

Boxer released her first TV ad Sept. 13, in which she declares support for manufacturing: “I want to see the words ‘Made in America’ again,’’ a jab at Fiorina’s outsourcing. The senator followed up two days later with a blistering attack ad: “While Californians lost their jobs, Fiorina tripled her salary, bought a million-dollar yacht, and five corporate jets,’’ an announcer intones.

“Barbara Boxer has always been a take-no-prisoners type of campaigner,’’ said Larry Levine, a California Democratic strategist. “She hasn’t had to do that for a while because she’s had some easy races. But if she’s willing to take no prisoners this time, there’s certainly a handy target out there.’’

Both candidates should be well-financed for the stretch run. Boxer had $11 million on hand as of June 30, according to campaign finance documents. Fiorina had just under $1 million, after spending more than $9 million in the primary. She loaned her campaign $5.5 million from her personal fortune and has been steadily raising funds.

The economy has been the principal battleground, but social issues play an important role in California elections, and Boxer said she plans to highlight differences.

Fiorina opposes abortion rights, while 70 percent of Californians support them, according to recent Field Poll figures. Fiorina supports offshore drilling, alarming the state’s environmentalists and beach tourism industry. Fiorina opposes gay marriage, though with Californians split on the issue, neither candidate has made much of it.

“This is about as conservative a Republican candidate as we have had in a long time,’’ said Cain, from Berkeley. “In theory, you shouldn’t be able to win in California with that profile.’’

Candidates who survive primaries often tack toward the political center, to appeal to a wider audience. Fiorina has not, said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, a think tank at Stanford University. “She’s betting on the prevailing winds to carry her.’’

Statewide, Democrats hold a 45 percent-to-31 percent voter registration advantage over Republicans, but the fear among Democrats is that deflated liberals won’t bother voting, denying Boxer the opportunity to run up the score in liberal strongholds in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

“If Boxer is able to get the vote out in the Bay area and LA, and do reasonably well in the other coastal counties, that’s usually her formula for victory,’’ said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll. “But there’s greater dissatisfaction with Boxer this year.’’

Mark Arsenault can be reached at top stories on Twitter

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