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With little money to spend, Chuck DeVore puts his faith in his message

Republican Senate candidate Chuck DeVore is a darling of the “tea party” movement. He has been endorsed by influential conservatives, was fawned over by superstar commentator Glenn Beck on Fox News and has a deeply energized base of supporters.

These credentials, coupled with DeVore’s single-minded focus on limited government and the Constitution, should make him a picture-perfect match to the political winds that are tilting Republican primaries across the nation.

But in California, none of this is paying dividends in the two areas that matter most: the polls and DeVore’s campaign account.

“I don’t know why Chuck DeVore has not done better. It is a mystery to me,” said Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State University. “It does shock me that a guy like that, a good-looking guy with a good pedigree as far as the right wing’s concerned, who says all the right things about abortion, healthcare, you name it, still he has not managed to move nearly as far as he needs to be considered in the swing of things.”

DeVore has been endorsed by the Tea Party Express, which also backed Republican Scott Brown in his successful run to capture the late Sen. Ted Kennedy’s seat in Massachusetts. But DeVore has not yet seen the financial surge such groups have taken to other races, such as Brown’s or Marco Rubio’s Senate run in Florida, where he has surged ahead of the establishment GOP candidate, Gov. Charlie Crist.

In the first three months of 2010, DeVore raised the least money, ended the quarter with the least cash on hand and spent the least among the three main GOP Senate candidates. Former Hewlett-Packard chief Carly Fiorina had nearly seven times as much on hand after debts, and former U.S. Rep Tom Campbell had more than three times DeVore’s accumulation.

In nearly every poll since the Senate contest became a three-candidate race, DeVore has badly trailed Fiorina and Campbell, and in most, he has failed to break into double digits.

For months, DeVore has said pollsters’ description of him as an assemblyman was skewing the results.

“Ballot titles matter a lot in California,” DeVore told a Family Action PAC luncheon at the Pacific Club in Newport Beach. “They called me a California state assemblyman. That’s like saying Chuck DeVore’s a thief. My actual title is assemblyman/military reservist. In our internal polling, that change alone doubled my support, when people found out I was not merely a scum-sucking politician.”

The candidate saw a glimmer of hope in a recent poll that showed him in a statistical tie with Fiorina for second place. The Capitol Weekly poll, the first independent survey to use his approved ballot title “assemblyman/military reservist,” showed Campbell leading with 31%, Fiorina with 17% and DeVore with 14%, a statistical tie once the margin of error is factored in. Some 37% are undecided.

The Fiorina campaign dismissed the poll as a fluke.

“While these numbers are inconsistent with every public and private poll taken recently in this race, the one thing that is consistent across all polls is the fact that the biggest winner in them all is ‘undecided,’ ” said Fiorina spokeswoman Julie Soderlund.

But Mark Petracca, chairman of the political science department at UC Irvine, said research suggests that ballot titles serve as voter cues and can make a difference, especially in primaries.

“Everybody abhors the Assembly. Saying ‘vote for me, I’ve been serving in a body that you despise’ doesn’t give you much of an asset,” he said. “What the military reserve thing does for DeVore is that it shows that while people may assume he’s a craven politician because he’s been in the Assembly, this is a person who’s serving his country.”

Campbell’s and Fiorina’s lead in most polls may also boil down to name recognition. Campbell was a congressman for nearly a decade, and Fiorina was the controversial and visible head of a Fortune 20 company.

But they also have started advertising on television, which is considered a necessity, albeit an expensive one, in a state as sprawling as California. DeVore has said that he is not planning to run television ads and that he believes Fiorina’s and Campbell’s small ad buys will be overwhelmed by the saturation advertising airing in the Republican gubernatorial race.

Political operatives were skeptical of a candidate’s ability to reach enough voters in a competitive race without taking to the airwaves and could not recall the last time anyone pulled it off.

“That’s not just a Hail Mary pass, that’s the whole rosary,” said Jack Pitney, a former national GOP official who now teaches government at Claremont-McKenna College.

DeVore’s voter outreach includes billboards, radio ads, yard signs that supporters can print, mailers and intense use of social media. Some of these pieces show how humble his campaign is: His daughter designed the billboards; his radio ads end “This is Chuck DeVore. Not only do I approve this message, I wrote it.”

DeVore has also been an enthusiastic campaigner since he joined the race in November 2008 and has vastly outpaced his rivals on the campaign trail, holding 330 events across the state.

DeVore’s Tax Day schedule showed the type of coalition he is trying to build among social conservatives, voters enraged by the Obama administration and long-time committed Republican activists. After hitting the Family Action PAC in Newport Beach, he spoke at tea parties in Irvine and Oceanside and capped the day off with a speech to a Republican women’s club in Fallbrook.

By stitching together supporters in these various groups, all of which are vital in a GOP primary, DeVore sees a path to victory.

Polls show that many of Campbell’s supporters are conservative Republicans, which DeVore said doesn’t square with some of the law professor’s positions. At least two independent expenditure groups are already spending as much as $2 million on television ads, mailers and robo-calls to tell voters about Campbell’s liberal social stances — he favors abortion rights and same-sex marriage — and about his support for temporary state tax increases.

Once these positions become better known, some Campbell supporters will desert him and find a natural home in the DeVore camp, the candidate believes.

“I’m liking everything where it is and I’m going to press on forward and be the happy warrior because I think I am going to win this,” DeVore said.

DeVore’s supporters recognize the challenges he faces and say it’s up to them to push him across the finish line.

After seeing DeVore speak at the Irvine event, Pete Tagni of Laguna Niguel said supporters had to go beyond attending rallies and channel their enthusiasm into talking to friends and neighbors about DeVore and volunteer for his campaign.

“This is how we’re going to take the country back,” he said. “I have some work ahead of me.”

The primary is in early June, but absentee ballots go out the second week in May. To date, the political narrative is that the Senate primary is a three-person race, in part because DeVore’s nimble campaign staff has been adept at generating news coverage. But Gerston said that unless DeVore starts showing some momentum soon, that will no longer be the case.

“Before people totally discount someone like Chuck DeVore, you have to give it another three weeks,” he said. “At that point, if it hasn’t kicked in yet, I think you can start issuing a post-mortem.”

seema.mehta@latimes.com


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