JIM LEHRER: Next tonight, some 2010 U.S. election politics.
In California, three Republicans are running for the chance to take on Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer in the fall.
"NewsHour" correspondent Spencer Michels has our report.
SPENCER MICHELS: Conservatives who gathered at this recent event in California's Silicon Valley were practically giddy about Republican prospects in the 2010 election.
RAY STRONG, conservative: The mood of the country is really encouraging to me, because I have been seeing things go in the wrong direction for a long time.
KEN JORGENSEN, conservative: As a Republican, I'm optimistic this year. I think, if we can't throw some of these Democrats out, we will never be able to.
SPENCER MICHELS: While California often votes Democratic in national elections, Republicans win their share of state contests.
SPENCER MICHELS: And, this year, they believe they can cash in on popular anger over government spending and health care reform. They will choose between three candidates for U.S. Senate in June, candidates whose ideologies range from moderate to very conservative.
At stake is the Senate seat currently held by Democrat Barbara Boxer, but also the direction of the Republican Party in the nation's most populous state. Carly Fiorina was CEO of Hewlett-Packard, the giant information technology firm. Chuck DeVore is a California state assemblyman and a former Army officer. And Tom Campbell, a former congressman who had been running for governor, but switched to run for the Senate.
The three are united in their beliefs that third-term Democrat Boxer, with a voting record among the most liberal in the Senate, is vulnerable. Defeating her, they say, would be a big step in helping Republicans recapture control of the Senate.
SPENCER MICHELS: Boxer has always been a favorite GOP target, but this may be her toughest race. Recent polls show her approval rating among voters has plummeted.
SEN. BARBARA BOXER, D-Calif.: Nothing is going to stop us on November 2, no matter what the pundits are predicting. We're going to stay. We're going to fight, and we're going to win.
SPENCER MICHELS: All three of Boxer's rivals are trying to paint her as a symbol of what's wrong with Washington and the Democrats.
The Fiorina campaign recently came out with this bizarre Internet video portraying Boxer as a blimp.
NARRATOR: Soon, her elitist self-image grew so, that it overwhelmed the Capitol and drifted west.
SPENCER MICHELS: Leading recent polls is Campbell, a former dean of the U.C. Berkeley Business School and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's former budget director. Campbell is attacking Boxer and the Obama administration for fiscal irresponsibility.
TOM CAMPBELL, R, California Senatorial candidate: There is no plan for reducing the federal deficit. They know that we have printed so much money and borrowed so much money, that the prospect of inflation is real.
SPENCER MICHELS: Campbell is more moderate on social issues. He supports gay marriage and abortion rights.
TOM CAMPBELL: There was a time when there was a fight for the soul of the Republican Party. It was on the social issues. But, this time, the focus is entirely on economic issues. And that's my strength.
SPENCER MICHELS: And he makes the case Republicans should vote for him because he says he has the best chance of beating Boxer.
Mark DiCamillo, who directs the independent Field Poll, confirmed that.
MARK DICAMILLO, director, Field Poll: Campbell does better among -- against Boxer, mainly because he does better among nonpartisan voters, the voters who are kind of up for grabs in a statewide general election.
SPENCER MICHELS: His most recent poll showed Campbell leading Fiorina by six points in the primary, both of them tied with Boxer. DeVore is trailing.
But, with the primary in June, it's still early in this campaign, and voter recognition of all three candidates is relatively low. And conservative Republicans, who often dominate the voting in a GOP primary, could spell trouble for Campbell.
CHRIS HAUGEN, Republican: We want somebody who is going to bring us some lower taxes and have less federal control of our lives. Yes, that's what we want.
SPENCER MICHELS: Do you think Tom Campbell fits that bill?
CHRIS HAUGEN: I don't know. I don't know.
SPENCER MICHELS: So, you're a little skeptical?
CHRIS HAUGEN: I'm a little skeptical here.
SPENCER MICHELS: Many of these mostly Republican voters, at a gathering in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, prefer Chuck DeVore, who has been avidly courting conservatives by claiming to be the true conservative in the race.
CHUCK DEVORE, R, California Senatorial candidate: Rather than mandating that people buy health insurance...
SPENCER MICHELS: A retired National Guardsman, DeVore is running a low-budget campaign. He travels this huge state alone, appealing to so-called Tea Party activists fed up with Washington.
ADRIAN NESTOR, Calaveras County Republican Party: It doesn't seem like anybody there, including Republicans, are listening to the people of the country. And that's, of course, why the Tea Party thing started. I have never been so worried in my whole life about my country as I am today.
SPENCER MICHELS: Recently, DeVore came to the old gold mining town of Angels Camp in Northern California. This is the community Mark Twain made famous in his story, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County."
These days, many folks come to this county to retire, and they vote heavily Republican, a natural audience for DeVore.
CHUCK DEVORE: The purpose of government is to ensure our rights, not to try to run our lives from cradle to grave. The American public is beginning to awaken to the threat to their economic freedoms and their basic freedoms as Americans with this massive expansion of government.
SPENCER MICHELS: DeVore is convinced he can garner votes across the political spectrum.
CHUCK DEVORE: This is not a right-wing phenomena. There are a lot of Reagan Democrats, people that we would have been called Reagan Democrats 30 years ago, decline to state, a few libertarian people.
When you think about the activism that's been unleashed by things like the stimulus program, and the concern about how in the heck are we ever going to pay for this, I think that -- that that is what exemplifies why this is going to be a different election.
SEN. SCOTT BROWN, R-Mass.: What a great crowd! Thank you very much!
SPENCER MICHELS: DeVore sees Republican Scott Brown's election to the Senate in usually liberal Massachusetts as a harbinger of what could happen in California.
CARLY FIORINA, R, California Senatorial candidate: I, Carleton S. Fiorina, do solemnly swear...
SPENCER MICHELS: Carly Fiorina thinks likewise. She signed the papers to run for office in San Jose, not far from the H.P. headquarters where she made her reputation as a tough, innovative executive in the world of high-tech. Her opponents like to point out that she was eventually fired from her post.
Now, after recovering from breast cancer, Fiorina is campaigning against big government and career politicians.
CARLY FIORINA: It has become virtually -- well, let's say much more difficult for those who create the American dream, innovators, entrepreneurs, small-business owners, to build the foundation of the American dream. I have lived the American dream.
SPENCER MICHELS: While Fiorina says she is conservative on social issues -- she opposes abortion rights -- her principal message is about jobs and the economy.
CARLY FIORINA: I'm a fiscal conservative because I have lived in the real world and I know what works. As the only candidate in this race who's ever created a job, I know that, if we want to create more jobs here in the state of California, then we must loosen the bonds of regulation, much of which flows from Washington, D.C. We must cut taxes, in particular for innovators and entrepreneurs and small-business owners.
SPENCER MICHELS: The most conservative candidates often win GOP Primaries in California, but, with three candidates in the race this time, the winner only needs to beat the other two, since there is no runoff, says pollster DiCamillo.
MARK DICAMILLO: That actually opens up an opportunity for a moderate, like Tom Campbell, to actually capture the nomination, since it would be possible, I think, to get 35 percent or 40 percent of the vote coming from moderates. And, if they're behind Campbell, he has a good chance.
SPENCER MICHELS: Whichever candidate Republicans choose, DiCamillo says he or she will have a tough battle, since Democrats and independents account for two-thirds of the electorate in California.
But, if the economy remains distressed, a fiscally conservative Republican could defeat an incumbent like Senator Barbara Boxer.