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Chuck DeVore faces steep climb for California Senate seat

Republican Assemblyman Chuck DeVore was riding high from his party’s recent Senate election victory in Massachusetts when he bounded into the town library here. The meeting of the Lincoln Tea Party Patriots was already buzzing over Scott Brown’s win in one of the bluest of blue states, and DeVore tried to convince them that with his consistent conservative credentials, he could take incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer.

“A sleeping giant has been awakened,” he said. “Some of you are scared. Some of you are mad as hell. . . . Times are different and we can win!”

If any major candidate should be able to marshal that sentiment in California it is DeVore, a lifetime conservative rumbler whose policy positions dovetail perfectly with the mojo of the nation’s guerrilla movement of the moment. Almost a third of Californians, according to a recent poll, identify with Tea Partiers like those at this gathering about 30 miles northeast of Sacramento; Republicans here and across the nation are salivating over the possibility of defeating their long-time Democratic nemesis, Boxer.

But serious questions remain about whether DeVore, 45, can survive the GOP primary. He has the fiscal and social credentials desired by the conservative party voters most likely to turn out in June. But, despite campaigning for more than a year, his candidacy is something of an apparition. Outside party circles and his home base of Orange County voters generally have no idea who he is, and he ended 2009 with a net $140,000 in the bank.

In a state as big as California, recognition does not come cheap. Primary opponent Carly Fiorina, a multimillionaire, has already lent her campaign $2.5 million, and former U.S. Rep. Tom Campbell, who jumped into the race last month, is much better known to voters because he has been in the public eye for two decades.

DeVore is counting on hard work and persistence to make up for money and name identification. Since announcing his candidacy in November 2008 he has logged more than 50,000 miles by car and air to meet with nearly 40,000 Republican voters at 239 stops up and down the state. (The candidate, an admitted wonk, logs every visit, mile and voter on a spreadsheet when he gets home to Irvine).

“Whatever the polls say four months before the primary, the strength of the volunteers backing us, the lack of any skeletal remains in my closet are going to allow me to prevail in this primary and to ultimately vanquish Barbara Boxer,” DeVore said at the January meeting of the West Valley Republican Women Federated at a diner in San Jose.

He tells voters that politicians in both parties have forgotten their duty, which he believes should be limited to securing citizens’ rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness -- “not making up new rights.”

“They make it up as they go along because they don’t have a core philosophy that guides their decisions,” DeVore said. “I have a core. It’s the Constitution, it’s the preamble of the Declaration of Independence. I don’t vary from that.”

The retired National Guardsman, Reagan White House appointee to the Pentagon and longtime legislator relishes political combat. Referring to the Senate hearing in which Boxer rebuked a brigadier general for addressing her as “ma’am” rather than “Senator” -- she told him she worked hard to win her seat -- DeVore pledged to call her “ma’am” every chance he could during debates.

If she objects, he told the women’s club, he will reply, “Well, then, Senator, you can call me Colonel because I worked a hell of a lot harder for that title!”

While mocking Boxer, he also criticizes his GOP primary opponents. At gatherings across the state, he paints Fiorina as a dilettante whose spotty voting record alone undermines her candidacy, and who has shifted her positions to the right on policies such as the federal economic stimulus package. He faults Campbell, who is campaigning as a fiscal conservative, for supporting temporary tax increases in recent years.

“I would argue it’s important to have some consistency in the people we trust with our vote,” DeVore said in Lincoln.

At each event, DeVore takes question after question, and he doesn’t always tell the voters what they want to hear. In Lincoln, one man said he was tired of congressional Republicans arguing they could accomplish nothing because they are in the minority. He asked DeVore how he would achieve more.

“I’m going to challenge you a bit on this, sir,” DeVore replied, before booming: “The first order of a senator is not to do something. It’s to follow the Constitution!”

DeVore’s supporters believe he is the lone candidate who would stop what they see as a growing threat to the nation’s future: ever-expanding government, deficit spending, debt to China. Their frustration that their leaders have stopped listening to them, and acting in their best interest, is palpable.

“I trusted my government,” said Ruth Crone, a Fair Oaks mother of four who attended the Lincoln Tea Party. The registered Republican said she has grown increasingly disillusioned with both her elected representatives and her party, and she supports DeVore because he understands what’s at stake. “Our individual liberties are imperiled by the financial irresponsibility” of the federal government, she said.

Zeal, however, is no guarantee of momentum.

DeVore sees a path to victory. Once primary voters tune in to the race later this year, he said, they will be turned off by the other candidates’ pasts: Campbell’s support for tax increases and Fiorina’s controversial tenure as chief of Hewlett-Packard. When he wins the primary, DeVore said, he believes the national conservative movement will financially back him much as it did Scott Brown in Massachusetts.

“Once you get past the June primary, the notoriety we’ll generate by defeating the better-known and presumably better-financed Republican -- one perceived rightly as the pick of the establishment, the other a moderate who has been in favor of tax increases -- I think that’s going to put us on the map,” DeVore said. “Frankly, I need that.”

While analysts predict, and polls thus far confirm, that the other candidates match up better against Boxer in the general election, he argues that Republicans would coalesce behind him because of their interest in defeating her. “That’s going to motivate a lot of people,” he said.

In every step DeVore takes, however, lies confirmation that his situation is dire.

He urges followers to attach bumper stickers to their car, noting that each one is worth $200 in paid ads. Campaign signs and T-shirts are stored in his Sacramento apartment. DeVore knows which car rental firm near the state Capitol offers the cheapest rates should he drop the car off in another city.

DeVore’s campaign staff is tiny and volunteer-driven, a shadow of Fiorina’s assembly of pollsters, media advisors and political consultants. The silver lining: The lack of bureaucracy allows DeVore’s circle to be nimble. As Brown gained steam in Massachusetts, DeVore directed his volunteers to call voters there the weekend before the election on Brown’s behalf; Campbell and Fiorina merely put out statements on election day. On Thursday, DeVore jumped on an opportunity to ambush Fiorina on a popular Southern California radio show, where he accused her of flip-flopping on the issues and tried to goad her into committing to a debate.

DeVore used to drive himself to campaign events, until his staff decided his time would be better spent in other ways, such as phone calls, interviews, Facebooking and chatting with voters on Twitter.

“I don’t know if this is going to be a waste of time at the end of the day in a state of 37 million people, or whether, relative to the large numbers of voters that we’re dealing with, whether this is a good investment of time. But what other choice do I have?” he asked. “I’m not a millionaire, and I’m not a celebrity.”

seema.mehta@latimes.com


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