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And Then There Were None

A Commentary by Debra J. Saunders

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Former U.S. Rep. Tom Campbell announced Thursday that he is dropping out of the California GOP gubernatorial primary and instead will run against Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer.

Last year, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom bowed out of the Democratic gubernatorial primary, leaving former governor and current Attorney General Jerry Brown as the only Democrat in the race -- and he has yet to announce that he is running.

Come to think of it, former Lt. Gov. John Garamendi also dropped out of the Democratic gubernatorial primary to run for (and win) Rep. Ellen Tauscher's vacated seat. The governor's race is starting to look like an Agatha Christie story, where all the characters get bumped off one by one. Call it: "And Then There Were None."

Campbell knows that some supporters are disappointed that he won't remain in the governor's race. Some had this fantasy that he would best the two moneybags in the race, much as Gray Davis beat Democrat richies Al Checchi and Jane Harman in 1998.

Sorry, Campbell explained, he was "not within hailing distance" of winning because he raised only about $1 million last year. By contrast, the two gazillionaires each tossed $19 million into their campaign coffers as if it were tip money.

As Democratic political guru Darry Sragow noted, people forget "in the telling of the story, Gray did have enough money to make his presence felt." Campbell wasn't in Davis' fundraising league.

There is also a nostalgia element to the switch. In 1992, Campbell lost the GOP primary to Bruce Herschensohn, who then lost the general election to Boxer. According to conventional lore, if the more moderate Campbell had won the primary, Boxer never would have won her Senate seat.

The lore could be wrong. Campbell was such a non-factor when he challenged Sen. Dianne Feinstein in 2000 -- she trounced him 56 percent to 37 percent -- that even political people tend to forget his walk-on role in that race.

What does Campbell's switch mean for voters? Democrats remain stuck with Jerry Brown. Sragow claims that voters want "comfort food" candidates and Brown is experienced. Others see the return of the decades-ago hippie governor as a bad LSD flashback.

Suffice it to say that Brown is an opposition researcher's dream. As Oakland mayor, he delayed the retrofit of the Bay Bridge, overused eminent domain to evict good businesses and hired City Administrator Deborah Edgerly, who, according to a city audit, had a penchant for "inappropriately hiring close relatives in lieu of well-qualified individuals."

Public employee unions gave Brown millions last year. What do they expect in return? Republicans have a strong candidate in GOP front-runner, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman. Given the electorate's clear exasperation with the big-spending Legislature and rejection of last year's tax-raising ballot measures, voters may well be looking for a no-nonsense executive to trim -- no, hack at -- the state budget, with its $20.7 billion shortfall. And, in a state desperate for good jobs, she knows what the private sector needs.

But there's also the Arnold Factor, which could undercut that edge: California voters may be wary of electing another Republican political novice who makes big promises to cut government spending.

As state insurance commissioner, rival Steve Poizner does have Sacramento experience. GOP strategist Allan Hoffenblum noted, "I always prefer two-candidate races" to threesomes. A two-way race helps Poizner's strategy to run as "the real conservative" in the race.

Poizner spokesman Jarrod Agen seized the moment to paint "Tom and Steve" as virtual twins, who talk to reporters, answer tough questions and (unlike Whitman to date) "show up for debates." But the last PPIC poll showed Poizner, despite his stint as insurance commish, with 8 percent of the primary vote. If his poll numbers don't pick up, he'll be debating himself.

The other Republican thrilled with Campbell's jump into the Senate race is Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, R-Irvine, who also had been a poor kid in a GOP primary overflowing with former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina's money.

Campbell believes he can fare better in the Senate race, as his campaign consultant conducted a poll -- an inside job, and hence suspect -- showing Campbell leading the field at 31 points to Fiorina at 15 and DeVore at 12.

Both Sragow and Hoffenblum see the move as good for Campbell. Hoffenblum, however, worries "that the two Silicon Valley candidates could split the vote and give it to" the perhaps too-conservative DeVore.

Fiorina has to be frosted. She laid the groundwork early. She lined up establishment support in Washington. Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee, was treating her as if she had won the nomination. And here comes Campbell late to the party with former Secretary of State George Shultz and his endorsement on his arm.

Fiorina spokesman Julie Soderlund dismissed Campbell's switcheroo as testament to his "quixotic personal ambition and the false premise that he will be acceptable to … primary voters."

When Campbell lost to DiFi, he raised a measly $4 mil to her $10 mil. He could not raise money from the more conservative GOP base.

There's "a huge difference this time," Campbell told me. Feinstein "was assumed to be unbeatable." In 2010, with voter discontent bubbling even in blue Massachusetts, this could be a bad year for Boxer.

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