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Outside the KPCC radio station on South Raymond Avenue, the Pasadena Police Department had a situation: Just before U.S. Senate Republican candidate Carly Fiorina debated Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer on live radio, a sidewalk rally turned into a full-blown demonstration, with about 200 mostly middle-aged Fiorina and Boxer fans pointing fingers and screaming.
"Communists! Communists! Communists!" Fiorina supporters yelled derisively, many wearing red "Carly" T-shirts and looking very organized. The Boxer crowd, mostly in street clothes and less in synch, was taken aback, and only a few managed to chant, "Fascists! Fascists! Fascists!"
"Boxer has not been there to help California agriculture," Fiorina backer Jim Schaefer of La Cañada-Flintridge angrily told L.A. Weekly. "She's not focused on California jobs. She's too focused on regulations."
A few feet away, Jorge Geaga of Silver Lake, an irate Boxer supporter, countered, "All that [Fiorina] represents is people for money. If you have money, she'll take care of you. If you don't have money, she won't be with you."
Fiorina and Boxer clashed a few minutes later. The Republican called the three-term senator an "ineffective" politician with "extreme views." Boxer said the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard was "hostile" to the environment and a supporter of "big oil."
That day in Pasadena brought into focus the overall passions and strategies of this rough-and-tumble race, especially when it comes to Fiorina.
Whether stunningly stupid or daringly smart, the Republican challenger is operating an unorthodox campaign by running in California as a true-blue conservative who embraces, and wants to keep energized, right-leaning voters who equate Boxer supporters to a bunch of capitalism-hating communists.
From opposing abortion and gay marriage to supporting offshore drilling and a big oil–funded ballot measure that would suspend California's global climate-change law, Fiorina is the real deal for conservatives. She even backs Arizona's controversial immigration law. But in California, where Democrats make up 44 percent of registered voters, Republicans make up 31 percent and 20 percent are "decline to states," who tend to lean a bit liberal, that's a risky strategy.
"Fiorina's views are significantly out of step with the key voters she needs to win over," says Democratic consultant Darry Sragow. "With her conservative views, she's not going to get three-quarters of the independent vote."
On the other hand, says Republican consultant Reed Galen, "We're in a highly volatile, highly anti-incumbent environment right now, and that's to Carly's benefit."
For one thing, California Republicans appear more energized than Democrats to vote on Nov. 2. Says Galen: "The regular dynamics of California politics are out the window this year because of the economy."
Running as a rock-ribbed conservative, says Republican strategist Matt Klink, "wouldn't work two years ago, and it may not work two years from now. But the voting public is less concerned about social issues than about creating jobs."
Democratic consultant Bill Carrick counters, "Fiorina's either a very principled conservative or a very bad political strategist. ... She's clearly made a choice she would run to the right of past successful Republican candidates [in California] — and I don't think that's been a naive choice."
Fiorina remains within striking distance of Boxer. A Public Policy Institute of California poll conducted in September showed Boxer leading the Republican challenger by seven percentage points, with 17 percent of likely voters undecided. Describing the U.S. Senate race as a "close" contest, PPIC president Mark Baldassare says Boxer is doing "reasonably well," but it's a "very unpredictable year."
The incumbent, Baldassare says, has to "be concerned with a large percentage undecided."
One big unknown is Latino voters. They lean heavily Democratic, but what if they don't show up at the voting booth, as has been known to happen?
Tony Quinn, a political analyst and co-editor of the California Target Book, which tracks political trends, says, "Boxer's depending on winning the Latino vote by a large margin — and that they'll show up. If turnout drops, that's going to have a measurable effect."
Latino voters have shown only tepid interest in statewide elections unless a hot Latino candidate or measure is on the ballot.
Until a few days ago, only Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, running against San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom to retain his seat on Nov. 2, was acting as a potential draw for California's Latino voters. Maldonado is only the second Latino in California history to hold that statewide office, having been appointed to the open post by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
As a socially moderate Republican whose parents began as poor California farm workers and grew rich while reaching for the American dream, Maldonado has created substantial buzz in the Latino community. If he wins and seeks the governorship four or eight years from now, Maldonado will be a potential threat to the Democratic Party's lock on the Latino vote for governor — big enough that Democrats in the Sacramento Legislature furiously but unsuccessfully fought to stop Schwarzenegger from appointing Maldonado to the high-profile lieutenant governor post.
And there's another angle in the Boxer-Fiorina struggle when it comes to Latino voters: They may be energized to vote against California Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, in solidarity with her tearful ex-nanny, Nicky Diaz Santillan. While at the ballot box, Latinos might just vote against Republican businesswoman Fiorina, too. Republican Whitman, ironically, could help sink the hopes of another Republican.