Fong, Slow but Sure, Becomes Underdog


A highlight film of Matt Fong's successful campaign for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination would be a short one--no 60-yard passes, no double reverses, no Statue of Liberty plays. Just a relentless series of three yards and a cloud of dust.

Team Fong may lack flash but it is highly disciplined. The candidate commits few fumbles, rarely gets rattled, and is ready to pounce on any miscue by his opponent.

That was the strategy Fong, currently state treasurer, used for a come-from-behind victory in the primary over car alarm entrepreneur Darrell Issa, who had lots of money, lots of strong opinions, and even a whiff of charisma.

After dispatching Issa, Fong moves on to a fall contest with incumbent Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, who coasted to a primary victory over token opposition. As he eyes that race, Fong hopes to topple the incumbent-insider the same way he defeated the neophyte-outsider: slow but steady.

Boxer has $3.4 million in campaign funds. Fong is $250,000 in the red. Boxer is a rousing stump speaker and can bring a crowd to its feet. The best Fong usually can muster is respectful applause, although in smaller groups he can be affable and engaging.

To close the money gap, Fong plans to continue the same rigorous fund-raising pace he employed in the primary. To close the personality gap, his aides hope to convince the media that Fong is not as bland as he often seems.

"We want to show people that Matt has a light side," said Fong spokesman Steve Schmidt. "We want them to know Matt as a funny, engaging guy who loves to fly jets and go whitewater rafting."

On Wednesday, Fong began the drumbeat that will grow louder as November approaches: Boxer is a liberal extremist and out of touch with California voters on issues of taxation, military preparedness, government spending, judicial appointments and more.

Against Issa, the more moderate Fong used much the same tactic, portraying his foe as a conservative extremist on issues such as offshore oil drilling. He also tried to stay above the fray much of the time, leaving the harshest attacks to aides.

Still, taking on an incumbent, especially in an era of prosperity and peace, is not easy, and Fong begins the campaign a decided underdog.

"There are a lot of questions Matt Fong has to answer before Labor Day," said Washington political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. "He has to raise money. He has to find a way to get Boxer on the defensive without looking too negative, and he has to sharpen his message."

Boxer is among a handful of Democratic Senate incumbents--along with Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois and Ernest Hollings of South Carolina--targeted by Republicans as being especially vulnerable. Part of the tale is in the numbers--Boxer continually scores high negative ratings among voters.

But Michael Tucker, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, says Republicans exaggerate Boxer's vulnerabilities.

"We're very, very pleased at where we're positioned right now," Tucker said. "Barbara Boxer can stir up the faithful, and she is so driven, so focused that she is formidable. And she won't lack for resources."

Boxer has already begun to blast Fong as an opponent of abortion rights, a captive of the National Rifle Assn. and a less than stalwart defender of the environment.

Both political parties promise to pour money and luminaries into the race. President Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton hosted fund-raisers for Boxer in the primary and may return before November; Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is scheduled to headline a Fong fund-raiser and presidential hopeful Jack Kemp is expected to do the same.

With only a slight respite for a family vacation, Fong will again hit the campaign trail, hoping to draw on tactics that served him well in the primary.

While Issa was bombarding the airwaves for months with TV commercials, the cash-poor Fong was traveling the state north to south and back again in search of votes, contributions and "free media." While the more conservative Issa offered catchy slogans, the more moderate Fong responded with detailed policy papers, often presented in a dry fashion to tiny audiences.

And when Issa made a series of verbal gaffes--calling Clinton a slut, showing ignorance of key issues, exaggerating his charitable involvement--Fong exploited the incidents to portray Issa as a wild-talking millionaire and political extremist.

A month before the election, Issa's rise in the polls skidded to a stop and Fong, once he could afford his own TV commercials, passed him. Hit by unflattering newspaper stories about his background, Issa was unable to kick-start his campaign.

Two factors that emerged in the primary could work in Fong's favor in November. Exit polling of Tuesday's voters by The Times showed him getting a quarter of his support from Democrats. What remains unclear is whether the bulk of those voters will stick with Fong or were merely crossing over to influence a more competitive race than the one in their own party.

Fong also apparently enjoyed overwhelming support among some Asian Americans--a pre-primary poll by the Chinese American Voters Education Committee in San Francisco showed Fong favored by Chinese American voters over either Issa or Boxer by 3 to 1. Although these voters are not large in number, such decisive support can make a difference in a close election.

On Wednesday, Fong attended a reception in his honor at the Golden Dragon restaurant in the Chinatown section of Los Angeles, where he thanked the Asian American media for its coverage of his campaign and blasted Boxer for being unsupportive of the Asian American community on the issues of taxes and Social Security.

Luck and good timing are also good to have on your side, and Fong had both in the primary. Indeed, some political analysts, such as the Washington-based Charles Cook, suggested that the election result was more a case of Issa losing than Fong winning.

Fong was the beneficiary of what strategists are calling the "Al Checchi backlash" against wealthy, inexperienced candidates.

Fong drew the comparison between Issa and Checchi, the would-be Democratic nominee for governor, at every opportunity, and Issa's rise in the polls stopped at about the same time as Checchi's precipitous drop.

Although Republicans are not counting on it, they would not be disappointed if Fong got a boost in the fall from special prosecutor Kenneth Starr's investigation into the president.

"Bill Clinton is the X-factor in this campaign," said Republican strategist Ken Khachigian.

If Boxer is worried about that or anything else, she wasn't admitting it Wednesday. At a Democratic event in Los Angeles she held aloft a pair of American flag boxing gloves and said she is ready for combat with Fong.

"He's a tax collector. He's more a bureaucrat," she said. "I'm a fighter. There's a difference in style."

Times staff writers Eric Lichtblau and Jodi Wilgoren contributed to this story.

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