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California Republicans Vying for Chance to Replace Boxer in U.S. Senate

Updated 8:12pm ET

California Sen. Barbara Boxer appears to be in political trouble, but as she always reminds audiences and interviewers, she’s been in trouble before, and has always emerged a winner.

I remember her running for supervisor in Marin County, Calif., where I live, back in the 70s – her second try. As an avowed environmentalist, she was a fighter, and in those days women were just coming into their own in politics. She won that local race, and became the first woman president of the board. After six years, she was elected to Congress from Marin, and in 1992 to the U.S. Senate. That was the same year Dianne Feinstein won her Senate seat – two Northern California Democratic Jewish women representing the country’s largest state. It was dubbed the year of the woman.

While Boxer has won three Senate races, this time she’s in the cross-hairs of the Republican Party and the Tea Party activists, who see her as a symbol of big government and too much spending, far too liberal, they say, for the times. Her popularity ratings have plummeted: from 51 per cent in January to 39 per cent now.

Three lesser known Republicans are trying to topple her and take advantage of her perceived vulnerability, in the aftermath of Republican Scott Brown’s Senate win in Massachusetts. Two of the Californians – Tom Campbell, a former congressman and Schwarzenegger budget director, and Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett Packard – have caught up with Boxer in the polls. A third Republican, conservative California assemblyman Charles DeVore, is running slightly behind. I talked with all of them while reporting on the race for the PBS NewsHour. They all appear confident – but politicians always take that stance.

Watch an excerpt of a Barbara Boxer campaign speech here:

And excerpts of interviews with DeVore, Fiorina and Campbell here:

Early on, Campbell has the highest name recognition. And polls show him ahead of Fiorina by six points in the latest Field Poll. But even though the primary is months away – in June – the election has taken a negative turn. Among the Republicans, the big issue is Boxer. Fiorina is running a long, complicated Internet commercial portraying the senator as a blimp, taxing and spending as she floats across the landscape. And the other candidates routinely take shots at her in speeches and interviews.

Fiorina, the former high tech executive, is also going negative on her GOP rival Campbell, who served as dean of the University of California Berkeley business school. In another intriguing Internet ad – obviously designed to create buzz – she portrayed Campbell as a demon sheep with red eyes, — a “FCINO”: a Fiscal Conservative in Name Only. Fiorina says he has favored tax increases; Campbell says he’s as fiscally conservative as anyone, and has the appeal to moderates, especially on social issues, to beat Boxer in November.

The race is heating up as the voters learn more about the Republicans, as their commercials start to hit the airwaves. The prize is a chance to topple a sitting Democratic senator and help the GOP recapture the U.S. Senate. Boxer says no way, but admits it’s her toughest fight yet.

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