The Magazine


Aug 31, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 48 • By TUCKER CARLSON
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Los Angeles

At noon one day in early August, Matt Fong walks to the podium in a lecture hall at the University of Southern California and delivers the speech that will define his campaign's positions on national defense. Fong, a California Republican who is running about even in his race against incumbent senator Barbara Boxer, speaks in a somber monotone as he explains the threats America faces in a post-Soviet world: unstable, nuclear-equipped dictatorships, the spread of biological terrorism, an increasingly belligerent China. Just last month, Fong says, the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States "delivered its report -- and it . . . is . . . sobering."

A bit dry, perhaps, but Fong's positions seem sensible enough. They are certainly relevant to California, a state whose economy has long depended heavily on defense contracts. But hardly anyone is listening. With the exceptions of Fong's staff and a single reporter from a weekly political magazine based 3,000 miles away, there are 38 people in the room. The crowd is so small that before the speech each member of the audience introduces himself by name. Where are the media? Who knows? says a Fong press aide. "Maybe there's a freeway chase. In the absence of a professional football game, that's what people here watch on television."

Californians are famously bored with politics -- Democratic consultant Bob Shrum once described a political rally in the state as four people standing around a TV set watching a paid ad -- and during this mid-term election, the electorate seems particularly disengaged. Fong, who has been the state's treasurer since 1995, has been around long enough to anticipate this, and his campaign isn't even going through the motions of retail politics. The candidate's schedule for the month of August lists just four speeches, all of them of the for-the-record policy-position variety.

Matt Fong's campaign may not be preempting freeway chases in California, but it is causing some excitement among Republican party leaders in Washington. "If he wins -- and he's going to win -- he's on anybody's short list for vice president," predicts one particularly enthusiastic official at the Republican National Committee. Fong has received an unusual amount of help and attention from the national party, both because his opponent is considered vulnerable, and because, in the words of Jack Kemp, "Matt Fong is a 21st-century Republican." It's hard to know precisely what Kemp means by that, but it probably has something to do with the fact Fong is Asian. As the Los Angeles Times artlessly put it last month, many Republican strategists consider Fong's campaign "a chance for the GOP to shake its image as a retrograde party dominated by whites in an era of increasing racial diversity."

Fong expects to receive millions this cycle from the Republican party, and he'll need every dollar. A successful Senate race in California probably requires a minimum of $ 10 million. With donations capped at $ 1,000 per person, the fund-raising task is enormous. Members of Fong's staff freely admit that their boss spends at least 80 percent of his time trying to bring in money. "You think there are three meals in a day?" asks Anne LeGassick Dunsmore, Fong's finance director and a highly regarded veteran of political fund-raising in California. "Nope. You've got two breakfasts, a lunch, cocktails, and a dinner. Every time we don't have two breakfasts we lose $ 10,000. Every missed cocktails is $ 15,000. A dinner is $ 25,000."

Between events, Fong works the phones. A timer sits on his desk. Each call is limited to five minutes. Under ideal conditions it would take 1,000 calls to raise $ 1 million, though nothing about fund-raising in August is ideal. This time of year, says Dunsmore, "everyone who has a thousand bucks is on vacation." Fong presses on undeterred, reportedly working non-stop for stretches of 20 hours or more. In the first week and a half after winning the primary, his campaign claims to have raised $ 1.5 million.