Republican Darrell Issa, the millionaire car alarm manufacturer who wants to be the junior U.S. senator from California, says one of his strengths is that he is not another career politician spouting carefully rehearsed rhetoric.
"I refuse to use canned lines," Issa says. "I think that is what is wrong with politics today: Nobody speaks from the heart."
Maybe. But Issa, 44, making his first try for elective office, is finding that off-the-cuff words can invite attack--particularly if you are viewed as the front-runner and thus are already a target.
Just days after the independent Field Poll gave him a narrow lead in the GOP race to unseat Democrat Barbara Boxer, his two opponents--state Treasurer Matt Fong and U.S. Rep. Frank Riggs (R-Windsor)--began slamming Issa for things said on the campaign trail, a barrage that will doubtless continue until the June 2 election.
Neither Fong nor Riggs can hope to match the spending power of Issa--whose wealth is estimated at $200 million or more--to buy television time for advertisements, so both are largely dependent, for now, on the vagaries of news coverage. Last week's pincer attack on Issa was carried out in faxes to news organizations, with at least modest success in forcing Issa to begin backpedaling.
Call it the education of a newcomer.
In one instance, Issa was forced into an apology for a comment about Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and the Jews. In another, he had to explain why his endorsement of Proposition 187, the anti-illegal immigration initiative that enjoyed considerable support among Republican voters, is not unequivocal.
"It's a lesson that political neophytes have to learn," California Republican Party advisor Dan Schnur said of the power of the garbled or ill-considered phrase. "The smart ones learn quickly."
Last week, in his toughest attack on Issa to date, Fong criticized his rival for published comments about the evils of "class warfare" in which he referred to "Hitler and the Jews" and "Clinton and the millionaires club."
The Fong criticism sprang from an article last week in the San Jose Mercury News in which Issa extolled the 1980s as an era of prosperity and decried President Clinton's past characterization of the decade as marked by greed.
Issa was quoted as saying that class warfare is wrong "whether it's Hitler and the Jews or Clinton and the millionaires club." The same article also noted that Issa later said the remark was unfair and he regretted it.
Fong, who as treasurer has worked to force Swiss banks to return funds to Holocaust survivors and the families of Nazi victims, lashed out anyway.
"It is insensitive and irresponsible for a candidate for the Senate to make comments equating the greatest crime in human history, the massacre of 6 million men, women and children, with a dispute over tax policy between Bill Clinton and his [Issa's] fellow millionaires," Fong said.
Issa said in response: "As soon as it came off my lips, I knew it was an over-exaggeration." He then noted that he grew up in a Cleveland suburb that was predominantly Jewish and that his sister is married to a Jewish man.
Fong also repeated a criticism he has leveled at Issa and other "millionaire candidates": that "they lack the sensitivity to deal with different social groups."
Riggs' latest slam against Issa was for his opposition to the section of the voter-approved Proposition 187 that would deny public education to illegal immigrant children. Issa noted his position in response to a question posed at a Republican women's club lunch in Vista, where he lives.
Riggs, calling Proposition 187 a kind of litmus test for California conservatives, noted that he sponsored legislation on the federal level that--if it had passed--would have mirrored the education section of Proposition 187, the initiative championed by Gov. Pete Wilson and now tangled in court challenges.
The flap over Issa's views of the proposition allowed Riggs--a staunch conservative--to repeat an old criticism of his foe with a new twist: "It appears that the real Darrell Issa, who claims to be the most conservative candidate in the race, is just a glib, fast-talking Ross Perot eccentric."
Issa, in response to the three-term congressman from the state's northwest corner, said that while he enthusiastically supported Proposition 187, he felt that denying educational benefits to children is wrong and counterproductive.
"We need to fight illegal immigration at the border, not in the schools," Issa said. "We should not punish kids."
Issa may well have had misgivings about the education section of Proposition 187 all along, but he has not sought to emphasize them. In his stump speeches and on his campaign's World Wide Web site, Issa talks tough about his support for Proposition 187 and advocates swift deportation of people who break immigration laws.
Stuffing a candidates' words down his gullet is one way to show the public he's not ready for office. Not for nothing has Riggs started linking's Issa's name with that of Perot, famous for verbal miscues such as his "you people" refrain to an NAACP convention in 1992.
And then there is the rule of shoot-the-leader.
"This is just the beginning," said Bruce Herschensohn, who narrowly lost the Senate race to Boxer in 1992 and now backs Issa as the best chance to defeat her. "If you're down in the polls, nobody cares about you."
Schnur, a former top aide to Wilson, agrees. "If Fong were ahead of Issa by five points instead of the other way around, this [Fong's attack on Issa] wouldn't be happening," he said.
A year ago, Fong was seen by insiders as one of the party's rising hopes: a proven statewide vote-getter, an Asian American in an era of diversity politics, an Air Force veteran, a hard worker known for attention to details.
Now Issa's television blitz has overcome Fong's early lead--at least in the Field Poll. What's more, Fong has been linked to the national controversy over political contributions from Asian donors. And his own ability to raise the millions needed to run successfully is unproved, although his campaign staff says his fund-raising is going well.
Publicly, Fong continues to brim with confidence. When voters begin to focus on issues and experience, he predicts, Issa will fade.
"They [Fong and Riggs] are playing with Issa's head," said Republican consultant John Kern, who is unaligned in the Senate race. "This is an insiders' game. But the goal is to see if Issa, like a lot of neophytes, can be rattled and be forced to start defending himself all over the place rather than staying with his own message."
Issa's Republican opponents aren't the only ones culling news stories for Issa-isms that can be turned against him. Activists in the anti-gun campaign--already firmly supporting Boxer for reelection--are ready to display a quote in which Issa suggested that Americans have a duty, not just a right, to arm themselves.
Issa, clearly chagrined by the Fong attack, said he almost longed for the days when he was an anonymous political hopeful--the days before he spent millions of dollars on advertising to spread his name, face and biography into as many California households as possible.
"See what happens when you guys start writing about me?" he said with a laugh.