Displaying a deep division over how best to capitalize on the White House sex scandal, state GOP activists thrilled Sunday to razor-edged denunciations of President Clinton while their U.S. Senate nominee quietly counseled a more measured approach.
While reserving the right to bash opponent Barbara Boxer for what he called her larger "hypocrisy," Senate hopeful Matt Fong backed away from some of his harsher rhetoric and for the first time suggested that the incumbent Democrat's "position on Bill Clinton is pretty much the same as mine."
Both candidates have condemned Clinton's conduct in his sexual liaison with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky; both have also suggested impeachment is a matter best decided by the process prescribed in the U.S. Constitution.
"I don't think it's an issue in my campaign," state Treasurer Fong told reporters after a 20-minute speech to the state GOP convention in Long Beach, a low-key address most notable for its omission of any reference to the Clinton scandal, which had served as the strategic centerpiece of Fong's campaign for the past several weeks.
"I'm not running against Bill Clinton," Fong told reporters. "I think that California voters want to know the differences between Matt Fong and Barbara Boxer on the environment, on Social Security, on Medicare and tax reform, and I think we should give them those issues."
At the same time, however, few things excite the GOP's core activists--the kind who open their wallets, lick envelopes, walk precincts and sit inside a drafty convention hall for a weekend of campaign speeches--like the prospect of a Democratic presidency in peril.
And so the convention rhetoric from the likes of state party chairman Michael Schroeder was gleefully, ruthlessly raw. Comparing Ronald Reagan's and Bill Clinton's conduct in the Oval Office, Schroeder offered this crack at Sunday's closing session: "Reagan, out of respect for the country and respect for the office, never even took off his jacket in the entire time he was president. And now we have a president who drops his pants."
The crowd of several hundred party faithful roared its appreciation.
Turning his sights toward Boxer, Schroeder said that her refusal to more strongly criticize the president made her fair game. "What it cuts to is Barbara Boxer's character," the chairman said. "It is relevant."
For all the Clinton clobbering, however, many party strategists have watched nervously as public opinion polls showed a backlash against congressional Republicans--and a surge in support for the president--after the release of his videotaped grand jury testimony in the Lewinsky matter.
The volatile public mood is particularly touchy for a candidate such as Fong, who has consciously sought to distance himself from the GOP's far right to enhance his appeal to the independent and centrist voters who often decide close statewide races.
Speaking to reporters after his address to the convention delegates, Fong criticized members of the Republican-dominated U.S. House Judiciary Committee for voting to make the videotape public. "'I would have liked to have that tape just released to the members of Congress," he said. "Let them determine whether or not that was something that should be released to the public."
Fong also urged fellow Republicans to "exercise some prudence" as the House considers a full-fledged move to impeach Clinton.
"I think the American people want the process to be fair to this president," said Fong. "If they perceive that it is not fair and it is partisan, then I think it's going to make it very difficult for any process to move forward."
Even as Schroeder and other party officials called Boxer a hypocrite for condemning Clinton's conduct but accepting his help in raising money, Fong said evenly, "How she wants to run her campaign is up to her."
Instead of focusing on Clinton in his address, the GOP challenger sought to present a more nuanced and issues-based argument, suggesting that Boxer's congressional record contradicts her campaign-trail professions of moderation on issues such as crime and national defense.
Accusing her of "double-talk, flip-flopping and hypocrisy," Fong said Boxer has voted to gut the nation's defense, stock the courts with soft-on-crime federal judges and allow the state of public education to badly deteriorate.
"Barbara Boxer is looking in her rear-view mirror and she wants to take California back to the past," Fong told cheering delegates--appropriating one of his opponent's standard lines, and giving it a conservative twist.
The convention was notable not only for the schism it demonstrated between Fong and party activists, but also for the gap between Fong and the party's other big-ticket candidate, gubernatorial nominee Dan Lungren.
On the same weekend that Fong moderated his remarks, Lungren took off after Clinton in his harshest terms yet. He decried Clinton's "abuse of power" and accused the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Gray Davis, of pandering to the president to ensure Clinton's financial support.
Moreover, Lungren has sought to make character the defining issue of his campaign; his strategists remain convinced that a public backlash against Clinton's behavior will benefit the statewide GOP ticket.
Privately, one party tactician conceded that Fong--like many Republicans--was tacking with the current political winds. "After the video was released, Republicans may have eased up on the throttle, but they haven't dropped the issue," the strategist said. "Depending on what the news out of Washington is this week, they could just as easily go back on the offensive."