Unusual Senate Race in California

Possibility of women winning both US Senate seats makes this a campaign to watch

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

CALIFORNIA'S historic dual race for the United States Senate is entering its final days with the electorate in a more volatile mood than at any other time in modern history.

The revival of the gas chamber for the first time in quarter century, earthquakes as common as a movie sequel, the burning of parts of Los Angeles - all have diverted attention from the normal political antics of an election year.

At the same time an enduring recession and the quixotic presidential bid of plutocrat populist Ross Perot have added to the restiveness of the electorate.

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"There is an emotional tension and frustration among the electorate I haven't seen since 1968," says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the Claremont Graduate School.

The result is that the all-important primary contests for the two US Senate seats will likely come down to the three "Ts": turnout, television, and the size of candidates' treasuries.

A key question will be whether California will send two women candidates to the political finals in November. Former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein has been comfortably ahead in the Democratic race for the "short" seat - the two-year term caused by Gov. Pete Wilson's move from the Senate to the statehouse.

At the same time, Rep. Barbara Boxer narrowly led in the most recent California Poll in the Democratic jockeying for the six-year position being vacated by retiring Sen. Alan Cranston. The contest for this "long" seat, though, will be testy on both sides of the aisle.

Ms. Boxer faces formidable challenges from Rep. Mel Levine and Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy. Mr. Levine is going into the final days of the campaign with the biggest war chest - and thus the ability to launch the last-minute television blitz so important in a huge state like California.

Levine, in fact, is providing the purest test of the California custom of campaigning-by-commercial. Virtually unknown a few months ago, he raised large amounts of money and waited until the waning weeks to saturate the airwaves.

It has paid off to a degree: He has moved up in the polls. But some political pros say they believe he has peaked, and they question the congressman's recent turn to the right. Normally liberal on social-environmental issues, he has been taking a tough law-and-order stance in the wake of the Los Angeles riots.

Mr. McCarthy, for his part, is positioning himself as the champion of the middle class - punctuating issues like jobs, the economy, and crime. In a race to which the public has paid scant attention, some analysts give McCarthy the edge since he is the best-known candidate - a comfortable "old shoe," as one strategist puts it.

Still, the Boxer camp is hoping her fiery personality and emphasis on the traditional liberal themes of women's rights, the environment, and reducing military spending will set her apart.

"Boxer is benefiting from a small gender gap," says Joe Scott, who publishes a political newsletter here. "But I think men are splitting more toward McCarthy than women are toward Boxer."

The GOP race for the six-year seat is equally close and far more ideologically divisive. It will help define the future of the California Republican Party.

Rep. Tom Campbell, a Stanford University law professor who represents the moderate wing, stresses abortion rights, environmentalist sympathies, and an economics background to help solve the country's financial woes.

His chief opponent, conservative TV commentator Bruce Herschensohn, favors a flat tax and opposes abortion and environmentalism. Campbell has more money in the bank and a slight edge in the polls, though a low voter turnout could help Mr. Herschensohn, whose conservative backers usually show up.

In the GOP race for the two-year seat, John Seymour, the appointed incumbent, maintains a strong lead over Rep. William Dannemeyer and US Civil Rights Commissioner William Allen, two conservatives.

On the Democratic side, Ms. Feinstein won't have the ticket all to herself. She faces a last-minute media push by state Controller Gray Davis, though many analysts consider his charge too late.

California's airwaves crackle with the sound of political music. Candidates are turning to negative spots and strong imagery - such as scenes from the riots - to stand out. But voters aren't necessarily being swayed.

"Throwing more money into advertisements isn't going to make much difference - especially with all the clutter that's out there," says H. Eric Shockman, a political scientist at the University of Southern California.

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