Wealthy Businessman Weighs Senate Race

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

San Diego businessman Darrell Issa, wealthy but unknown except in the most rarefied California political circles, announced Thursday that he is formally exploring a campaign for the U.S. Senate.

Intent on underscoring his seriousness, he immediately put $2 million of his own money into the effort, a campaign official said.

By forming an exploratory campaign--a legal device that allows candidates to raise and spend money--Issa becomes the third potential Republican candidate seeking the opportunity to unseat the Democratic incumbent, Sen. Barbara Boxer.

San Diego Mayor Susan Golding jumped into the race in March, joining state Treasurer Matt Fong as the two highest-profile candidates. Both are also in exploratory mode, with official declarations of candidacy expected to be months away.

Issa, who owns a highly profitable car alarm company in Vista, has been a major contributor to Republican causes in recent years. Among his donations was $7,000 to Fong in his 1994 campaign for treasurer.

The businessman also helped organize volunteers for last year's Republican National Convention in San Diego, and provided seed money for Proposition 209, the measure that outlawed affirmative action programs in state government.

The formation of his campaign was announced by press release, although it came as little surprise because Issa has been discussing a campaign for weeks. An aide said the candidate was busy with business matters and had no time for comment Thursday.

One Republican strategist said he expects Issa to try to position himself as a conservative, playing off the more moderate images of Fong and Golding. Issa's press release emphasized the popular C-word:

"Darrell Issa's conservative values resonate with mainstream America," Scott Taylor, Issa's campaign manager, said in the statement. "California voters are in no rush to reelect a liberal career politician like Barbara Boxer. Her election was a fluke."

As his $2-million donation attested, Issa's potential strength clearly lies in his wallet. In the last four years he has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to state and federal candidates and political organizations.

"He has a big checkbook," said Ray McNally, a consultant to Fong. "But the political campaign trail is littered with the broken wagons of candidates who spent a lot of money and didn't make it."

Republicans have long salivated over the Boxer seat, believing her liberal voting record would make her an easy target. But polls taken at this early stage illustrate that Boxer still has an impressive lead over her little-known challengers.

A recent statewide Field Poll found that 64% of Californians did not know enough about Fong to register an opinion, and 76% felt that way about Golding. Issa's name was not included in the survey.

When voters were asked whom they supported under open primary rules--in which any voter can vote for any candidate--Boxer had 37%, Fong had 9% and Golding had 5%. In a closed Republican primary that hypothetically included Fong, Golding and other Republicans--but not Issa--Fong had 16% and Golding 10%.

California voters in June approved an open primary system for the 1998 elections, but it is being challenged in court.

Fong has been working hard to establish himself as the front-runner, a position he would like to solidify before Golding, who has lagged organizationally, gets up to speed. Two fund-raisers next week are expected to raise more than $500,000 for Fong's campaign.

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