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Feinstein, Boxer Win Easily : Clinton Clinches Democratic Nomination : Primary: Democratic voters make history by nominating two women for the Senate. The race between GOP’s Herschensohn and Campbell is tight. Sen. Seymour coasts to victory over Dannemeyer.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

California voters made history Tuesday when they nominated Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer to the U.S. Senate, the first time in more than 30 years that a woman in this state has been a major party nominee for the nation’s highest legislative chamber.

The two scored convincing victories over prominent and well-financed male opponents. Feinstein will face appointed Republican Sen. John Seymour in November. Boxer’s foe was still not decided early today.

In a bitterly fought Republican contest, conservative television commentator Bruce Herschensohn and moderate Palo Alto congressman Tom Campbell were in a virtual tie. In the other Republican race, Seymour coasted to victory over Orange County Rep. William Dannemeyer.

The nomination of two women was hailed as a dramatic demand for change and an unprecedented opportunity for women to reach higher office.

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“California has sent the country a message: The status quo must go!” Feinstein told a cheering crowd at her victory headquarters in San Francisco.

Feinstein, running for the two-year seat vacated by Gov. Pete Wilson, took a commanding lead over her opponent, state Controller Gray Davis, and claimed victory before 10 p.m.

Shortly before she spoke, a group of women marched through the auditorium chanting, “Two percent is not enough!"--a reference to the fact that the Senate is made up of two women and 98 men.

Boxer, a five-term congresswoman from Marin County who will battle the winner of the Campbell-Herschensohn duel, met with hundreds of supporters at a Hollywood record company, many of whom seemed stunned at the margin of her triumph.

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“I promised to take this campaign to the people and the people responded!” Boxer said. “They want a fighter in the Senate, don’t they? They want someone to shake up the Senate, don’t they?” The crowd roared.

Despite the revelation that Boxer wrote 143 overdrafts on the scandalized House bank, she was headed toward a comfortable victory over better-known Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy and better-financed Rep. Mel Levine of Santa Monica, who spent about $6 million on his campaign but was finishing third.

“This clearly is the year of the woman,” Levine said in conceding defeat to Boxer. “There is a tidal wave here. This was not the time to be running against a talented woman.”

McCarthy said: “I got caught in a tidal wave without a surfboard.”

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Both pledged to support Boxer in the November election. She is running for the six-year seat being vacated by the retirement of Sen. Alan Cranston.

Voters throughout the state--male and female--said the perceived importance of putting more women in the Senate influenced their decision, exit polls showed. In fact, the polls indicated that even if women had not voted, Feinstein and Boxer would have won.

Both Boxer and Feinstein played the so-called gender card in their campaigns, urging voters to send women to Washington and drumming up rage over the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill controversy and over threats to abortion rights.

Despite the unprecedented opportunity to choose two Senate nominees in a single election, turnout was low Tuesday.

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“It’s like having a party and no one coming,” Secretary of State March Fong Eu said, indicating about 6 million people, or 44% of the electorate, voted.

In the Republican primaries, the race between Herschensohn and Campbell was too close to call. Campbell, who ran as a Republican who advocates abortion rights, clearly had the evening’s woman-candidate trend on his mind.

“Don’t hold my gender against me,” he told reporters.

Even at the GOP victory headquarters in a hotel near Los Angeles International Airport, the tensions between Campbell and Herschensohn supporters raged. Campbell’s crowd chanted “We choose Tom!” when he walked in. Herschensohn’s people countered: “Herschensohn! Herschensohn! Herschensohn!” in an effort to drown out the other faction.

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In the two-year race, Seymour said he was confident he could defeat Feinstein in the fall. “I’m gonna be the senior senator from California,” he told supporters.

The only other time Californians voted for a woman Senate candidate from a major party was when Democrats nominated Helen Gahagan Douglas to run against Richard M. Nixon in 1950. She lost after one of the most vitriolic campaigns in state history.

Feinstein and Boxer planned to kick off their general election campaign immediately, flying to four cities in eight hours today.

Despite the significance of having two seats up at the same time, the campaigns never seemed to catch the citizens’ fancy. Candidates relied largely on television advertising and spent more time fund-raising behind closed doors than stumping in public. Ultimately, the campaigns were overshadowed by the Los Angeles riots.

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With four primary races and with a total of 10 major candidates, confusion reigned for those voters who did take notice.

SIX-YEAR SEAT

The Democrats

The closely contested Democratic primary for the six-year seat featured three California politicians who are well known in party circles: two up-and-coming liberals in Boxer and Levine, and a veteran senior politician in McCarthy.

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Boxer started the race amid doubts over whether she could raise the money needed to wage a formidable campaign. But she received a boost from women’s organizations that made her candidacy a priority in a year of promoting female politicians.

The revelation that Boxer wrote 143 overdrafts had the most potential for damaging her campaign. She tried to downplay the episode, apologizing and saying she should have paid more attention to her bank account. Both of Boxer’s opponents attacked her on the issue, most notably in a television ad by McCarthy that showed a small picture of her bouncing across the screen to a “boing” sound.

Levine, who served 10 years in the House, sought to distinguish himself from Boxer and McCarthy by emphasizing his vote last year in favor of going to war against Iraq. Later, after the Los Angeles riots, he broke with most Democrats and stressed law and order over social programs as the answer to inner-city problems.

Levine, with legendary fund-raising abilities, embarked on his quest for the Senate with a war chest that grew to be the largest of any Senate candidate in the nation. For most of the campaign, the congressman from Santa Monica shunned public appearances, relying instead on a multimillion-dollar television blitz to raise his relatively unknown profile. The strategy got results: Levine soared in polls from single-digit ratings to a high of 22% in The Times Poll of May 22 (to McCarthy’s 28% and Boxer’s 24%) before stalling.

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McCarthy, beneficiary of the high level of name recognition that comes with three decades in public office, was the best-known candidate in the race. He campaigned on a pledge of improving the lot of the middle class.

The Republicans

Without a doubt, the most bitter, openly hostile race was the Republican primary for the six-year seat, pitting two ideological extremes in the state GOP. The third major contender, in true only-in-California fashion, was former entertainer and Palm Springs Mayor Sonny Bono.

Campbell, a moderate Republican congressman from the Silicon Valley, and Herschensohn, a conservative television commentator, duked it out in half a dozen debates and in increasingly testy television spots.

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Campbell portrayed himself as an advocate of abortion rights who is fiscally conservative. Herschensohn, who is opposed to abortion, promoted a flat-tax plan and urged repeal of bilingual education laws.

Each accused the other of hiding his agenda and of being an extremist--Campbell an extreme “Democrat in Republican clothes,” Herschensohn an extreme right-winger.

Bono struggled to be taken seriously and appeared weak in his mastery of the issues. But he attracted a certain following among admiring, older voters who greeted him at numerous campaign stops all over the state, from San Diego to Eureka.

TWO-YEAR SEAT

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The Democrats

When former San Francisco Mayor Feinstein decided to run for the two-year seat, it was with the idea that she would not have to face an opponent in what experience had taught her could be an expensive, taxing primary.

Davis was the spoiler. Backed by the same consultants who worked for Levine, the state controller joined the race and sought to portray himself as the stronger advocate of minority and women’s issues. He also harped on allegations that Feinstein misreported $8 million in campaign contributions and expenditures from her unsuccessful 1990 gubernatorial race.

But Davis never gained substantially in the polls. Feinstein effectively campaigned on a range of health and education issues, including the need for more medical research for women’s illnesses. A cornerstone of her program was a $135-billion “Invest in America” plan to be financed over a five-year period with defense and security budget savings. The money would go to build schools, repair bridges and highways, and for training workers.

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In contrast to her race for governor, Feinstein eagerly emphasized women’s issues.

Davis came under criticism with his television ads. The first showed footage of the beating of a truck driver during the riots in Los Angeles; the second compared Feinstein to hotel queen and felon Leona Helmsley.

The Republicans

For Seymour, the task in this campaign was to establish an identity in a state where he was still not well known, despite having served in the Senate for the last 16 months. His ads--the first of any Senate candidate to air--attacked the arrogance of Congress and sought to portray himself as an outsider and agent of change.

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His closest rival, Dannemeyer, appealed to the more conservative segments of the GOP and tried to attack Seymour for changing his position on abortion and other issues.

In this race, polling showed a large block of voters remaining undecided until shortly before primary day, indicating little interest in a rather lackluster competition.

Contributing to this story were Richard C. Paddock and Dan Morain in San Francisco and Douglas P. Shuit, Dean E. Murphy, David Reyes, Stephanie Chavez and Theresa Rosales in Los Angeles.

* ELECTION STORIES, TABLES, PICTURES: A3, A14-A22

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