By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
In September, with media interest showing no sign of abating and polls indicating that Californians wanted a more definitive response from their senator, Boxer got up on the Senate floor and pronounced the president's infidelity "wrong," "indefensible" and "immoral." But the criticism continued. To her detractors, the adjectives had not been harsh enough; for Clinton fans they were too harsh - this despite her having gift-wrapped her statement in praise for all that our president has done that is good. Even The New York Times' Maureen Dowd chimed in on this one: "Concerned with saving her political skin" was how Dowd put it.
The Lewinsky scandal presented Boxer with a classic political Catch-22. Had she stepped up her criticism of Clinton, she would have seemed uncharacteristically opportunistic. Had she attempted to explain why l'affaire Lewinsky wasn't parallel to the nonconsensual meanderings of Packwood and Thomas, she would only have ensured that the media would bombard her with even more questions. Once the story broke, she had nowhere to go; thwarted from discussing the issues she wanted to discuss, compelled to confront a herd of reporters whose only real question was whether Barbara Boxer had a double standard, condemned by circumstance to wage a no-win contest with herself.
Another month, another poll. In mid-October, after months of alarming numbers - including a September poll that showed Boxer down five points with likely voters - the news is encouraging. She is now up by five among those same voters. The constant barrage of Clinton questions has dwindled. But the endgame remains, and for a politician whose approval rating has seldom risen above 50 percent, it will be crucial.
In the final analysis, Boxer's prospects may rise or fall on her ability to redirect the attention of the voters, to shift the focus from herself to things like gun control and abortion, those "year of the woman" issues that served her so well in 1992. Not only that, she must also remind Californians that the election is not a Boxer referendum but rather a race between herself and a conservative Republican opponent. Because Fong has been reluctant to state strong positions, she's having to state them for him, airing endless television commercials that specify his voting record and opinions. And if voters get more exposure to Fong himself, well, that would be Boxer's dream come true. "He's not ready for prime time, there's no question about it," says veteran Democratic consultant Bill Carrick, who had the opportunity to assess Fong's abilities as a campaigner at the August Fong-Boxer debate. (During the hour, Fong's eyes anxiously scanned the notes he'd brought with him, often he stammered. And then there was the pose he kept striking: cocking his head to one side and crossing his arms over his chest, eyeglasses clutched in one hand. No doubt he meant to project a dignified air of skepticism, instead he looked as if he were vogueing, only without the irony.) "I think they'd be better off continuing to run him around with Danny Quayle and Steve Forbes," says Carrick, "hiding him behind big Republican personalities."
On an early Saturday morning in September, Boxer heads to a barren space next to the Collar and Leash in a strip mall on Santa Monica Boulevard. Prior to her arrival, a huge throng of senior citizens and men in shorts, Doc Martens and tight T-shirts have gathered to officially inaugurate the new West Hollywood Democratic Headquarters. Red, white and blue crepe-paper streamers hang from the ceiling, which is really just a lattice of metal frames that once held white acoustic tile. Toward the back of the room is a freshly erected wooden stage, perpendicular to which is a long table covered with bagels and coffee urns. The noise is deafening.
Even so, it gets louder when Boxer finally arrives. Here, it's a little easier than usual to find her, too, since for once she's not the shortest person among the large elderly turnout. First, West Hollywood Mayor Steve Martin warms up the proceedings, then Democratic Party chairman Art Torres and Sharon Davis, Gray Davis' wife.
But all this is just political foreplay; what these people are waiting for is the U.S. senator in the dark-green pantsuit, pearl earrings and the veil of fruity perfume to get up on The Box. She has just come from the beach, where she and young children collected trash off the sand, and where reporters quizzed her endlessly about Clinton. But now she is on friendlier turf, and as she heads toward the podium, the expression on her face says that she knows this is where she gets to use her 10 minutes as she wants. She rags on the media. She ticks off her accomplishments while in the Senate. She rails against Matt Fong's stance, just as she is supposed to, explaining how he is endorsed by the California chapter of the National Rifle Association, how he is anti-minimum wage and pro- Star Wars, how he believes that Roe vs. Wade was wrongly decided and the courts should dismantle it.
By the time she gets to Fong on the environment, it's obvious that she owns the house. "Matt Fong says there's too much enforcement of the Clean Water Act," she bellows to be heard over the jeers and the laughter. "Now in my 22 years of elected life, NO ONE has ever come up to me and said, 'Barbara, we have to talk,' and taken me off to the corner and said, 'There's too much enforcement of that Clean Water Act. The water is TOO CLEAN . . . it's TOO SAFE TO DRINK . . . DO SOMETHING, BARBARA. PLEASE!!'" She delivers this last line pleadingly, milking it for every drop of comic absurdity. She keeps going until the clock runs out on her, then leaves the room as 150 fans chant, "Bar-BRAH, Bar-BRAH, Bar-BRAH."