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Matt Fong is no Boxer

As their candidate works a room of film-industry conservatives at the Beverly Hills Hotel, Matt Fong's handlers, puffing away on cigarettes on the patio outside, are feeling optimistic - cautiously so, because everything about the Fong campaign is cautious, but optimistic nonetheless.

It's less than three weeks before the election, and the first wave of Barbara Boxer's ad barrage hasn't put a dent in the poll numbers that show Fong in a dead heat with California's junior senator. And the campaign-finance reports filed that morning show that they have out-raised Boxer almost 2 to 1 since the primary.

But what has loosed an uncharacteristic chortle from campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt is a cartoon that appeared in that morning's San Diego Union-Tribune. It shows Fong, looking 8 feet tall, standing placidly alongside a contorted, diminutive Boxer who is jumping up and down, pointing her finger at Fong and yelling "extremist!"

"It was perfect," crows Schmidt. "Just perfect."

The image encapsulates the improbable campaign that has brought Fong - a bland, careful politician if there ever was one - a short step away from joining the world's most exclusive club. As Schmidt is well aware, his candidate is not in the race because he has a more compelling stance on the issues - on that score Boxer gets the nod with poll respondents. He is running even with Barbara Boxer because he is not Barbara Boxer. He is, with his affable, plodding demeanor, his calm, studious mien, the un-Boxer. In a recent poll, nearly a third of likely Fong voters said their main reason for supporting him was that he was "not Barbara Boxer." No other answer was even close.

"This campaign is not about the issues," says another Fong campaign aide. "It's about a steady hand on the tiller. That's Matt Fong. That's our message." And their strategy, as the cartoon suggests, is to avoid doing or saying anything that would detract from his appearing, as the aide puts it, "senatorial."

Inside the hotel's salmon-pink Rodeo Room, as Fong delivers what has been billed a "major speech on the economy" to the small, celebrity-free crowd (gatherings of film-industry conservatives are by definition small, celebrity-free affairs), he is performing right on cue. The speech, like Fong himself, has no rough edges, makes no dramatic statements or bold proposals and is more or less likable. Couched in Jack Kemp-style rhetoric about "increasing opportunity" and "knocking down barriers," there are riffs on "cutting government waste" and "building bridges between communities." The one indication that he has ideas that fall well outside the mushy middle is his backing of a flat tax - which, tellingly, is the only issue (other than his passion for the Star Wars missile defense system) that seems to get Fong fired up. Otherwise it is safe, unthreatening, steady and boring.

That may be just as his campaign wants it. But it doesn't begin to answer the question that Fong's opponents have tried, unsuccessfully, to pin him down on in the past: Who is Matt Fong and what is he about?

Fong is too well-prepared a candidate to fumble that fundamental question, Why are you running for (in this case) U.S. Senate? But in a recent interview, he comes pretty close. "I mean, I mean," he stammers, and then finds some traction, seguing from a throwaway line about wanting to "make a positive difference" into his standard stump rhetoric about "knocking down barriers." It's not a bad line for Fong, one that resonates well with his bid to become the first Chinese-American senator from the continental U.S., and recalls his billing by Jack Kemp as a "21st-century Republican."

But his difficulty in finding the handle on the answer underscores the curiously indistinct quality of Fong's political career. People who knew Fong growing up didn't see in him the passion for politics that marked the career of his mother, March Fong Eu, a trailblazing political firebrand from the Bay Area who served five terms as California's secretary of state, retiring in 1994 to become ambassador to Micronesia.

"I was surprised when Matt first ran for office," says Matthew Gagin, a former aide to March Fong Eu who has been close to Fong since he was a teenager. "When he was growing up, I pegged him to have a business career, legal career or military career."

In fact, Fong, 44, worked stints in all three fields, and didn't especially distinguish himself in any one of them. Since graduating from the Air Force Academy in 1975, he has led a peripatetic professional life, pressing onward through a series of careers and offices, building a long resume without really leaving his mark.

Upon completing his pilot training, Fong was posted to Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, where he served in a series of unglamorous jobs - equipment control officer, equipment control training, assistant chief of data automation, chief of data automation - receiving promotions and commendations on schedule but winning none of the coveted assignments or medals that would have pegged him as a comer.

In 1980, after his commission expired, Fong returned to California and enrolled in Pepperdine's MBA program, which he followed with a law degree at Southwestern. He ran an import-export business with exceedingly modest success - "We didn't go bankrupt," Fong told one audience recently. His superiors at the law firm of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter and Hampton remember him as a "strong, competent lawyer," but "not a rainmaker," and in any case he left before he could be considered for partner. "The paramount word that comes to mind when you look at Matt professionally is 'competence,'" says Gagin.

Nothing up to this point in Fong's career suggested that he was destined to become a fast-rising political star. He had worked on his mother's campaigns, including her abortive bid to become the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate. But if he had an inclination to make his own run for elective office, he kept it to himself.

All that changed in 1988 when Fong left his mother's party and declared himself a Republican. He became, overnight, a hot political commodity in a GOP that was eager to build bridges to the Asian-American community and shake its image as a party of white men only. Through associates in his law firm, Fong was introduced to local GOP activists who in turn brought Fong to Washington, where he was squired around to party leaders including Newt Gingrich and Jack Kemp. There were receptions in his honor, photo-ops with conservative leading lights. Between his ethnicity, his resume and his mother's political legacy, Fong had the makings of a candidate, and in 1989, then-gubernatorial candidate Pete Wilson asked Fong to join the ticket and run for state controller, clearing the field of primary challengers for him.

Fong's crushing defeat in that race (to Gray Davis) did little to slow his rapid ascent. Governor Wilson appointed him to the State Board of Equalization, and other political plums came his way. He was selected as a speaker at the 1992 Republican Convention in Houston and appointed to Gingrich's National Strategies Conference, a high-profile policy-setting group. "He was our token Asian," says one longtime GOP activist approvingly. Reportedly "bored" with his job at the Board of Equalization, Fong decided to run for treasurer, and Wilson again helped clear the field for him. Within months of taking that office, Fong began plotting his run for Senate.

"I call him the accidental candidate," says one prominent Chinese-American attorney who has supported Fong in the past but is skeptical of his qualifications for the Senate. "Matt was in the right place at the right time." That sentiment is shared, privately, by others in the Chinese-American community who have followed Fong's smooth rise on the GOP affirmative-action track, even as he is viewed as the best hope for greater representation for that long-overlooked community.

Which is not to say that Fong is as light a weight as Michael Huffington or the many other lesser lights who have declared themselves for U.S. Senate. True to form, Fong put together a solid if unspectacular record as treasurer. He sold Wall Street on the message that California recovery merited an increase in the state's credit rating - not a terribly hard sell considering that the state was in fact recovering. And he used the office's power to issue tax credits to boost, however modestly, money available for students loans, affordable housing and inner-city economic development.

The one standout of his tenure as California's chief financial officer has been Fong's role in Pacific Rim investment issues. Organizing a series of investment conferences and junkets to the Far East, he "got the pension-fund managers to start thinking about equities markets in a global way," says Grover McKean, a former deputy treasurer under Jesse Unruh, and a Democrat who supports Fong. That thinking translated into an $800 million commitment to Pacific Rim investment. Not coincidentally, many of the Wall Street players who participated in Fong's trade missions have become campaign contributors.

Of course, the thinking about equities markets in a global sense has changed dramatically in recent months, as one Asian economy after another has snapped to the whiplash of speculative capital flows, and the received wisdom of a Pacific Century built on transnational capital has come in for some serious re-evaluation. But Fong is, for a politician, unusually engaged and well-versed in issues like the role of the International Monetary Fund in economic development; the Senate, with its large foreign-policy portfolio, would make an ideal platform for his voice. The problem for anyone who tries to take Fong seriously as senator material is that as a candidate he doesn't talk about these issues. "I used to talk about it all the time, but most people aren't interested," says Fong, showing a marked fealty to what his campaign advisers are telling him. And besides, calling attention to Fong's trailblazing in the volatile, stormy world of Pacific Rim trade and investment doesn't exactly square with his campaign packaging as a "steady hand on the tiller." Which leaves us with Fong, the un-Boxer.

Since hitting the airwaves last month, the Boxer campaign has been trying to color in Fong's nebulously favorable public image with the hues of doom-and-gloom Republicanism. "When you are an incumbent and not in tremendous shape, your job is to make the challenger an even less-attractive alternative," says Democratic strategist Darry Sragow. "It becomes incumbent on the incumbent to run a negative campaign." Thus we have seen ads portraying Fong as anti-choice, Fong as anti-gun control, Fong as anti-environment and overall, Fong as extremist. In truth, Fong has never shown much interest one way or another in these hot-button issues - his pollster, Steve Kinney, says Fong would be happy if he were never asked about abortion again - and his social-issue politics are basically nonideological.

But the fact that Fong's campaign has gone on the air to defend him against Boxer's abortion spots suggest that her ads have begun cutting into the 3-to-1 favorable impression voters have of Fong. And in the absence of any affirmative sense of who Matt Fong is other than a steady, likable guy, Boxer's punches will likely continue to score points with women and swing voters.

The campaign ad that could potentially do the most damage to Fong's image is an ad the Boxer campaign will probably never run. Call it the "Asian Money" spot. It could go something like this:

[In a deep, ominous voice] Fact: In 1995, Matt Fong personally solicited a $50,000 campaign contribution from this man [closeup of Ted Sioeng], whom U.S. intelligence officials say was at the center of a Chinese government plot to illegally influence American political elections.

Matt Fong claims he didn't know that this contribution was illegal.

But a United States Senate subcommittee called Matt Fong's explanation "UNPERSUASIVE" and said Fong had "EVERY REASON TO SUSPECT" he was taking illegal, foreign money.

Fact: In 1996, Ted Sioeng gave another $50,000 to a Republican campaign organization after Matt Fong arranged for him to meet in person with Speaker Newt Gingrich [photo of Sioeng and Gingrich together].

Matt Fong told government investigators that he didn't know anything about this contribution - but the Los Angeles Times says Fong's wife was paid a $6,500 "commission" for helping raise the money. Etc., etc.

Potent, vicious stuff, which could well backfire on Boxer if she ever stooped to use it - which is probably why she won't. The Boxer campaign has nibbled around the edges of the issue - a current Boxer ad, for instance, says Fong wants to give HMOs "the same legal immunity enjoyed by foreign diplomats" while panning over a gray, grainy image of Fong's face.

But for the most part, Fong has gotten a pass on what remains the biggest gaffe of his cautious career. In part this is due to adept damage control - within hours of the story breaking in Newsweek and the L.A. Times, Fong returned the money - and in part, Fong has been lucky. When the Senate subcommittee investigating fund-raising abuses released its findings last February, Fong was so far behind in the polls that the report's account of Fong's evasive answers quickly blew over.

But even if the "Asian Money" scandal doesn't become an issue in the campaign, it has already cost Fong considerably where it counts - in his campaign coffers. Since the allegations of a "Chinese plot" surfaced in the fall of 1996, congressional investigators and FBI agents have become a familiar and unwelcome presence in the Chinese-American community, questioning literally hundreds of contributors, including many longtime citizens and permanent residents whose only apparent offense was their ethnicity. The effect of this dragnet has been to intimidate large portions of what is Fong's natural donor base.

"No question, the investigation has had a chilling impact," says Charlie Woo, a senior statesman of L.A.'s Chinese-American community who has raised money for Fong. "Many times when I have called people and said, 'Let's go help Matt,' the most common response is that they are afraid of any further investigation." During his unsuccessful bid for mayor, Mike Woo raised over $6 million, mostly from the Chinese community; Fong, says Charlie Woo, will be lucky to raise half that. An irony which is surely not lost on Fong is that his mother was forced to withdraw from her 1988 Senate primary bid after questions were raised about the finances of her second husband, millionaire Singapore businessman Henry Eu, who refused to file financial-disclosure statements as required by law.

Anger over the inquisition, on the other hand, has had the effect of galvanizing support in the Chinese-American community behind Fong and heightened the symbolic quality his candidacy has in that community. A Fong victory, says Judy Chu, a Monterey Park city councilwoman and Democratic activist, "would ease some of the disillusion" caused by the investigation and "show that the political process can work for Asian-Americans." In a tight race, a massive turnout of Asian-Americans, traditionally low-propensity voters, could well put Fong over the top.

Should Fong lose, however, all his candidacy would leave behind is more bitterness and disillusion. Fong has not, in the manner of other successful ethnic politicians, done a lot to bring others into the political process in his seven years in public office. There are no proteges of Matt Fong moving up through the political pipeline, no political organization he has built other than a contributor list. "I am afraid there would not be anything left behind," concedes Charlie Woo.

Which, in the end, would prove a fitting legacy for the kind of campaign Fong has run, and the kind of politician Fong has been all along.

David Cogan contributed to this story.