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.

If elected, Fong is sure to be one of the Senate's more articulate opponents of limits on campaign fund-raising. Setting caps on donations, he says with some passion, "stifles the freedom of speech of donors who want to give their candidates more." It's less certain how closely he would follow the Republican line on other domestic issues. Fong grew up in a prominent Democratic family -- his mother, a long-serving secretary of state, became famous in the 1970s for eliminating California's pay toilets -- and he has been a Republican for only about 10 years. He still seems uncomfortable with ideology. To date, for instance, Fong has consistently refused to define himself as either pro-choice or pro-life, claiming the labels are meaningless.

More likely, he realizes how significant the labels are and is fearful of alienating a significant block of voters. Fong has settled on a position that matches precisely what pollsters believe is that of the majority of Californians: Opposed to partial-birth and taxpayer-funded abortions, and in favor of parental consent for minors, he has pledged not to interfere with the legality of first-trimester abortions. In spirit, says campaign communications director Steve Schmidt, Fong is pro-life. "He's adopted," Schmidt says. "How could he be for abortion?" Privately, a number of others on Fong's staff say they consider him pro-choice.

Most of Fong's advisers seem not to care. The point, says a top Fong strategist, is that "Matt Fong is not a pro-life, right-wing Republican like [California gubernatorial candidate] Dan Lungren, saying 'I'm Catholic and proud of it."

Fong, those around him frequently point out, is proud to be a moderate -- not mushy, but rather, "non-doctrinaire." In a state that produced Ronald Reagan, Fong is running as George Deukmejian, a sober-minded, fiscally sensible leader who may cut taxes, but won't quote the Bible or scare investors. "In this campaign," says a Fong aide, "there are no issues that are polarizing. The question is, Which incumbent do you want?"

The Fong campaign is betting that many California voters don't want Barbara Boxer. Over her six years in the Senate, Boxer has never achieved above a 50 percent approval rating in the polls. A sizable group of Californians, in other words, is committed to disliking Boxer, and from the beginning the Fong campaign has sought to find out why. "Believe me," says one Fong strategist, "if we knew, we'd have it on television." The campaign has commissioned polls and focus groups on the subject and received no clear answer. Responses from participants at a recent focus group, says Schmidt, were typical: "It wasn't like, 'She's gone too far on the environment,' or 'She's a lunatic on the military.' They couldn't pinpoint what they didn't like about her. They just didn't like her."

By all accounts, Boxer hasn't grown any more likeable in recent months. She ran her 1992 senate campaign against conservative Bruce Herschensohn almost solely on the issue that she was a woman, making frequent and loud references to the abuse Anita Hill allegedly suffered at the hands of Clarence Thomas. Sexual harassment, she explained at the time, is especially painful "if you are in your twenties and you are a woman in a man's field." After her victory, Boxer continued as a self-appointed spokesman for the sexually harassed, leading the effort to expel serial groper Bob Packwood from the Senate. Since January, however, Boxer (whose daughter is married to Hillary Clinton's brother) has said virtually nothing about the president's behavior with Monica Lewinsky. At one point, the senator flatly refused to answer questions from reporters on the subject, explaining that a leg injury prevented her from standing long enough to hold a press conference. Shortly after, she was seen dancing at a party.

In skillful hands, Boxer's obvious hypocrisy would make a devastating campaign issue, but so far the Fong campaign appears to have given her a pass. "The whole Monica Lewinsky thing is like the tarantula on the birthday cake," says a Republican operative who has advised Fong. "No one knows where it's going to go." Fong, for his part, seems to wish the whole subject would disappear. "On any questions about Clinton," a spokesman warns moments before an interview, "Matt really doesn't like talking about that right now."

Will Fong ever want to talk about Clinton? Maybe later, depending on where the president's poll numbers go. Fong's timidity can be frustrating to watch. On the other hand, he may simply be warming up for a career as a Republican in the U.S. Senate.

Tucker Carlson is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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