- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Sen. Barbara Boxer’s bid for a fourth term next year was not showing up on the political hot lists until polls revealed last month that former Hewlett-Packard Chief Executive Officer Carly Fiorina was just four points behind the veteran California Democrat.

The combative, archliberal lawmaker had easily won re-election in 2004 with 58 percent of the vote in the heavily Democratic state, and most election forecasters are still putting her candidacy in the safe column.

“Few observers believe that Fiorina, who has many political liabilities, will actually upset Boxer, but the former CEO’s experience and fund-raising potential [make] the contest at least entertaining and worth watching,” said elections analyst Stuart Rothenberg in his closely watched newsletter analysis of House and Senate races.

Still, political strategists were surprised when a July 22 Rasmussen poll of 500 likely voters in California found that Mrs. Boxer drew support from 45 percent of them while her expected Republican rival was breathing down her neck with 41 percent. The rest were either undecided or supported someone else.

A Rasmussen poll in March had the former businesswoman trailing Mrs. Boxer by nine points.

“Any incumbent who polls below 50 percent early in a campaign is considered potentially vulnerable. However, a Democrat running in a heavily Democratic state like California is often able to overcome weak poll numbers,” Rasmussen said.

Mrs. Fiorina, who has long been expected to enter the race, announced last week that she has filed papers to begin exploring a candidacy.

“The people of California have serious concerns about job creation, economic growth and the role of government in solving problems that touch each of our lives,” she said in a statement.

A Republican last represented California in the Senate in 1992, when John F. Seymour — who replaced Republican Sen. Pete Wilson when Mr. Wilson was elected governor in 1991 — lost a special election to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Mrs. Boxer’s Democratic counterpart.

Mrs. Boxer, who took office in 1993, holds the seat once held by former Republican President Richard M. Nixon.

Mrs. Fiorina is probably known best for being one of the nation’s few women to run a Fortune 500 company; she was pushed out in a corporate power struggle. She also is remembered as one of John McCain’s economic advisers and a top surrogate in his 2008 presidential campaign, winning praise for her political appeal to business entrepreneurs and the case she made in TV appearances for the Arizona senator.

Mrs. Boxer already has indicated that she will use her potential opponent’s resume against her, linking her to Hewlett-Packard’s troubles under her management and her prominent role in Mr. McCain’s losing race.

Though she appears to be the Republican Party’s strongest candidate right now, Mrs. Fiorina has never run for elective office and could be tested in a primary contest in June against conservative Assemblyman Chuck Devore, a little-known state lawmaker from Irvine.

“Fiorina has great potential in this race simply by virtue of the fact that she can self-fund a campaign. But as a candidate, Fiorina is a blank slate, and she has a lot to prove,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior elections analyst at the Cook Political Report.

“It might be November before we know whether she will run the kind of campaign she needs to run to unseat a Democratic incumbent in a very blue state. Boxer’s numbers have never been rock-solid, and she by and large has had weak opponents. Democrats certainly don’t want to have to spend money in California. Lightning can strike here, but it’s up to Fiorina to demonstrate that she is a strong and credible candidate,” Ms. Duffy said.

California’s severe recession and high jobless rate may provide an opening for the challenger; polls show a majority of voters are disenchanted with President Obama’s stimulus plan. Mrs. Boxer voted for the plan, but most voters say the rescue effort has had little impact on their circumstances.

California’s unemployment rate reached 11.9 percent in July, the highest it has been in more than 30 years, and Republicans are pounding Mrs. Boxer and the Democrats for not delivering on their promises that the $787 billion spending stimulus would produce jobs.

“As Californians suffer through record unemployment rates, where is Barbara Boxer’s promise that the so-called ‘stimulus’ bill would ‘put Californians to work’ and would offer ‘help and hope?’” asked Amber Wilkerson, spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

There have been increasing reports coming out of California that Mrs. Boxer’s popularity has been declining as the state has descended deeper into recession.

“Boxer’s liberal record has sharply divided voters, and she has long been less popular than” Mrs. Feinstein, Michael Finnegan wrote in the Los Angeles Times last month.

A Field Poll in March showed that voters there were “about evenly divided on Boxer’s re-election, with 43 percent inclined to support her and 44 percent leaning against,” the Times reported.

The recent Rasmussen poll found that just 5 percent of California voters called the state’s economy “good” or “excellent,” while 64 percent described it as “poor.” Twenty-eight percent said things were getting better, but 45 percent said they were getting worse.

Democrats are playing up Mrs. Fiorina’s messy departure from Hewlett-Packard and her massive job cuts while running the company and pointing to some of her awkward campaign remarks, which led McCain campaign officials to stop using her for TV appearances.

“This is a person who was fired from Hewlett-Packard for running the company into the ground, fired from the McCain presidential campaign for incompetence, and now thinks the people of California are going to hire her,” said Eric Schultz, chief spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

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