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Boxer-Fiorina Showdown Expected to Be Explosive, Expensive

Barbara Boxer Holds News Conf. On Wall St Reform Legislation; Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The biggest question about California’s primary election remains unanswered. What is the strength of the Republican right wing, the tea partiers? That question will ultimately have to wait until the general election in November — and even then the answer may not be clear.

Former HP boss Carly Fiorina won what was supposed to be a tough race for the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate. Running from the right, she easily beat former congressman and professor Tom Campbell, who billed himself as the moderate in the race, especially on social issues like gay marriage and abortion. And she trounced a state legislator who was further right than she, Assemblyman Chuck DeVore. Fiorina, who will now face Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, spent a lot of the $21 million she got when she was forced out by HP.

Money was an issue for Campbell, who never quite put together a big-time fundraising machine that could match Fiorina’s war chest. Campbell’s other problem was that he doesn’t seem to have the charisma that it takes to win; he comes across more as an intellectual, and may have a hard time connecting with the average voter. And conservatives regard him as almost a Democrat. Campbell ran statewide before; he’s often received early support from moderates who like his laid-back style. But he seems to have a hard time competing when the going gets rough. And DeVore’s problem was that he wasn’t at all well-known, and he didn’t raise enough money.

While DeVore was confident that he’d get a lot of right wing support, Fiorina pulled the rug out from under him when she got an endorsement from Sarah Palin. Overnight, Fiorina’s poll numbers – which had been essentially even with Campbell’s — jumped by 13 percent, partly answering the big question: the conservatives do have a lot of clout, and they seem to like someone they think can win. But the Palin endorsement could backfire in the fall – with more moderate voters. Whether the conservatives have the strength to win a general election is uncertain; many times in California strong conservatives have won Republican primaries (several times against Boxer) only to be defeated by the Democrats in the fall.

The Boxer-Fiorina clash should be explosive and expensive. Boxer knows how to raise money, and she knows how to campaign. She says she’ll stress job creation, which Fiorina says is her strength: she created them at HP. But Boxer has been in office for three terms, and might be vulnerable to the anti-incumbent, anti-government mood we hear so much about. And Fiorina is now a proven campaigner; the primary race taught her some lessons, and she’s got Boxer in her sights. But having campaigned from the right in the primary, Fiorina will now have to appeal to other California voters, and she may be too conservative; after all, California is – most of the time – a blue state.

Appearing too conservative could also be a problem for Meg Whitman, the former chief at eBay, who scored a huge victory in the Republican primary for governor over state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner – a former Sililcon Valley executive. While Poizner spent a lot of his own money – $24 million – on the campaign, Whitman spent more than $70 million of hers, putting so many commercials on television that they seemed to drown out Jack in the Box ads and promos for “American Idol.” And most of those spots tried to portray Poizner as too liberal, though he claimed he was more conservative than Whitman. She boasted of her conservative credentials and her business acumen. People seemed to grow tired of the TV spots, and Poizner’s numbers started to climb. But it didn’t last, and Whitman won easily.

At the age of 53, she now faces Jerry Brown who is 72 years old and was governor in the ’70s. She calls him a career politician, which he certainly is, having been mayor of Oakland, California secretary of state, attorney general and a school board member. He’s lost several races, for Senate and president, but he’s an old pro from a political family. His father, Edmund G. (Pat) was governor before Ronald Reagan. Brown doesn’t have the money that Whitman seems to – but he knows how to fund raise, and he has the support of many unions.

The strange thing about the governor’s race is this: Why would anyone even want to run California right now? The state is running a $19 billion deficit, with no relief in sight. Employment is dropping below the national average. The legislature is stuck. Republicans, in the minority, can and do block budgets, despite the fact that the governor who writes them is a Republican. And so far neither candidate has come up with a comprehensive way to get the state out of its mess. It’s just possible that they both figure the economy will improve on its own, and they’ll get credit when state revenues increase.

Meanwhile, Californians did a few other things of note Tuesday:

  • They gave Gavin Newsom, the mayor of San Francisco who instituted same-sex marriage in the city, the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor – which, if he wins in November could position him for higher office.
  • They voted to approve spending for a new stadium for the San Francisco 49ers football team, in Santa Clara, near San Jose.
  • They approved a new method of primary elections where the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, will face each other in the general election. The parties are not happy about that.

November’s elections should be an interesting ride: not only will the races for governor and senator be noisy, but the voters will also make a closely-watched decision as to whether marijuana should be legal — not just for medicinal purposes.

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