CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS : The Strategists in the Herschensohn-Boxer Battle : Republicans: Kenneth Khachigian has more influence than most campaign managers. His conservative roots are similar to his candidate’s.
For Bruce Herschensohn and Kenneth L. Khachigian, it has been a match made in political heaven.
Herschensohn, the master communicator, has zealously spread the word about his conservative bid for the U.S. Senate, crafting his own stump speeches and boning up on his favorite political issues.
Khachigian, the master strategist, has plotted the campaign course, deciding how and when to raid the campaign treasury and--perhaps more importantly--where to strike against Democratic foe Barbara Boxer.
The division of labor has made Khachigian perhaps the most influential campaign manager in the races for California’s two U.S. senate seats. On questions of strategy, tactics and campaign logistics, Khachigian rules supreme, with Herschensohn openly relinquishing control to the veteran political consultant.
“His domain is the kind of thing that I don’t know much about and it isn’t my stuff,” Herschensohn told The Times editorial board in explaining his own inability to answer questions about fund raising, television ads and campaign strategy. “What I do is everything that I would want to do if I were in the Senate--my own speeches, my own policy papers, my own issues.”
The arrangement has its roots in 20 years of friendship and mutual admiration, dating from 1972, when both Herschensohn and Khachigian worked in the Richard M. Nixon White House. It is also grounded in a common ideology, with the two men committed to the most conservative causes of the Republican Party.
“I am not just a hired gun,” said Khachigian, who wrote speeches for Ronald Reagan when he was President and was a senior adviser to Vice President Dan Quayle during the 1988 presidential campaign. “That is why I relish in beating up on Barbara Boxer. She is a wacko left-winger. She is really on the fringe. . . .
“I don’t put this kind of stress and strain on myself because I enjoy the game so much. I do enjoy the game, but at the end of the game, this is about changing America. That sounds corny, but I believe that.”
If there is a Khachigian axiom of politics, it is that elections are won in the library. All of the arrows in his political quiver--many of them potentially lethal--are typically collected during months of intense research leading up to an election.
The necessary corollary to the Khachigian axiom has earned him a reputation as an aggressive--and some say vicious--political operative. In the campaign against Boxer that has meant scathing television commercials attacking her tenure in Congress, including her votes on seemingly obscure legislative amendments that Boxer complains do not fairly reflect her record.
“Why do you say such awful things about me?” Boxer asked Khachigian after a recent debate in Manhattan Beach.
“It is a dirty job,” Khachigian recalls responding, “but somebody has to do it.”
In the primary campaign against Rep. Tom Campell (R-Palo Alto), Khachigian’s opponents lodged similar complaints, with Campbell’s campaign manager, Ron Smith, becoming so angry that he accused Khachigian of having “gone berserk” and resorting to tactics beneath former Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
“Ken is as tough as you get,” said Steven A. Merksamer, a Sacramento attorney who worked with Khachigian on former Gov. George Deukmejian’s two gubernatorial campaigns. “He is a great guy to have in a foxhole next to you.”
Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, who hired Khachigian in his tight race against Democrat Arlo Smith in 1990, said Khachigian’s penchant “to get in there and slug it out” reflects the lessons he learned as a child in the Central Valley. Khachigian, the son of Armenian immigrants, grew up on a farm in Visalia and maintains strong ties to the agricultural community, where his mother still lives.
“He grew up understanding that life is not easy,” Lungren said.
A San Clemente attorney during the off-campaign season, Khachigian, 48, made his reputation as a speech writer and political strategist. He got his first break into politics in 1967 when he worked for Pat Buchanan as a volunteer researcher for the Nixon presidential campaign. Khachigian still regards Buchanan as a mentor, the man who taught him not to be timid about his conservative convictions.
Khachigian has never before served as campaign manager, agreeing to take the job only as a favor to Herschensohn. He is being paid about $15,000 a month, the campaign confirmed. He places a high premium on loyalty and secrecy, rarely disclosing tactics and often refusing even to announce the release of television ads.
Craggy-faced with deep-set eyes, he looks and plays the part of an old-fashioned pol: He refuses to use a computer, tapping away instead at an aging IBM Selectric typewriter. His Spartan office is often engulfed in smoke as he draws on his favorite cigars, Jamaican-made H. Uppman Lonsdales.
Khachigian predicts a close election, with Herschensohn ultimately prevailing. He says Boxer has made several strategic mistakes, but he refuses to blame his counterpart, Rose Kapolczynksi.
“Professionally, I have respect for her,” he said, “but I will still want to beat her brains out.”