Underdog casts lot with college kids

Trailing in bid for Senate, California Rep. Tom Campbell tries to rouse the often-apathetic twenty-somethings.

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As "Team Tom" fans out across the lecture hall, the man himself glides across the stage with the ease of a practiced professor, which he is.

Volunteer cards circulate, placards are handed out, and Rep. Tom Campbell (R) of California, battling uphill to be the next US senator from this state, holds forth.

"When I was exactly where you are," Mr. Campbell tells the packed hall of college students, "we had something called Vietnam." Heads nod.

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"We're about to put military advisers into Colombia, and look at the similarities," he warns, referring to the gradual escalation of US military involvement that led to a direct role in the Vietnam War. More heads nod.

It's no news that the fervent activism that made Berkeley and other US campuses launch pads for social movements of the 1960s is long gone. But Mr. Campbell's Senate bid is staking as much on rekindling young voter involvement as any major-party election campaign in the nation this fall.

He talks about America's failed drug war, including the massive interdiction campaign in Colombia, which he says is a waste of money. He talks about how to protect Social Security for the next generation. He talks about the importance of retiring the national debt before doing anything else with budget surpluses. He talks about ending foreign aid, and giving money directly to the world's needy.

But most of all, Campbell seems to be practicing what Berkeley student Donny Chia says is essential to getting young voters' attention this election season.

"If you're not different, you'll drown," says Mr. Chia.

On that score, Campbell's head is well above water. He's a Republican who voted against Newt Gingrich becoming Speaker of the House in 1997. He's for abortion rights, pro gay rights, favors recognizing Cuba, and voted to impeach President Clinton, though his moderate California constituents lashed him for doing so.

He's also in favor of ending the war on drugs and reorienting policy toward treatment of users, rather than punishment.

While downright liberal on many social policies, Campbell is conservative on fiscal matters, favoring replacement of the income tax with a national sales tax, and generally small government, a core belief that he says makes him most at home in the Republican Party. When asked what kind of political amalgam he represents, he flashes a toothy smile and says "Bulworth," a reference to the quirky, truth-telling political maverick played by Warren Beatty in the movie of that name.

Yet if Campbell takes a page from Bulworth, he does so with unfailing politeness.

When chided by a student for appearing to take credit for authoring a policy he endorses, he says, "I take your correction humbly and gratefully." Even when he's really fired up about something, his rants wouldn't warrant a PG rating. They often start with, "What troubles the heck out of me is...."

Early in the campaign, he acknowledged that his opponent, Dianne Feinstein, has been a pretty good US senator.

"He's refreshing, both in style and substance," says Larry Gerston, a political scientist at San Jose State University, near Campbell's current Silicon Valley congressional district.

Some critics consider him a little too pure, and eggheaded, to be a major force in politics. Indeed, his reluctance to back Mr. Gingrich cost him the kind of committee influence that might have otherwise come his way.

But Campbell prides himself on being consistent, principled, and wary of taking positions in order to increase his influence. "When you do that, I think it eats at you," he says.

In attempting to rouse youth support, Campbell has tried to recapture a little of the magic of the presidential primary campaign of Arizona Sen. John McCain (R). He describes Mr. McCain's appeal to young voters as stemming from the sense that the candidate was driven by something larger than self.

Campbell has even hired McCain's youth director to run his campaign, and spends much of his time on college campuses across the state.

No doubt, though, the Campbell campaign is leaning on a weak reed in counting on a surge of young voters.

Turnout among 18- to 20-year-olds nationally has been in general decline since the voting age was dropped to 18 in 1972.

"The trend lines are awful," says Curtis Gans of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. Youth turnout slipped to 28 percent in the last presidential election.

Adding to the quixotic character of Campbell's campaign are disheartening poll numbers. The latest California Field poll puts Campbell 20 points behind Senator Feinstein. While Campbell cites some other voter surveys that show a single-digit gap, even that is formidable for a campaign that has less than $1 million in the bank and a presidential race that in California, at least, shows few signs of creating coattails for Republicans.

Yet even if the polls are right, Campbell appears to be having fun going down swinging.

He has made headlines with his call for a new approach to drugs - a call echoed in a ballot initiative before California voters that requires treatment, not incarceration, for use, possession, or transportation of controlled substances. The race between Campbell and Feinstein will kick into high gear this week with two scheduled debates. Given her lead, Feinstein has so far spent almost no time campaigning or directly engaging Campbell.

Should student power fail to catapult Campbell to victory, he'll still be somewhat beholden to students for the next phase of his career. Campbell has been on leave from a faculty position at Stanford law school, where he will return if he doesn't win a new job in Washington.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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