Barbara Boxer strikes familiar theme and touts value of incumbents

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As she campaigns for a fourth term in the U.S. Senate, Barbara Boxer faces a dual challenge — fending off the aggressive blows of a well-funded opponent while defusing voters’ impatience with the pace of the economic recovery and Democratic programs that have yet to have a direct impact on many voters’ lives.

To that end, Boxer this week returned to her theme in past campaigns, that she is a fighter “in the corner” of struggling Californians. At the same time, the Democrat argued that despite voters’ disgust with elected leaders in Washington, there is actually some value to having a long-term incumbent in office.

For months, her Republican opponent Carly Fiorina has contended that Boxer is a “failed senator” with little to show for her time in the Senate. Fiorina’s supporters tailed Boxer on Wednesday with signs bearing that message, and her spokeswoman, Julie Soderlund, kept up the criticism by accusing Boxer of trying to “rewrite the facts about her record and pretend she has actually accomplished something for the people of California.”

To refute those attacks, Boxer’s staff has spent the last few months cataloging every amendment, earmark and executive order that the senator has worked on over her three terms — posting many of them on her website and assembling packets of the “highlights” for local reporters in each city in her two-day campaign swing across California. The trip marked the formal campaign kickoff for Boxer.

“People are busy in their lives, they don’t know all the things I’ve done,” Boxer said this week when asked how she planned to counter the contempt toward incumbents this election season. Although she has cast herself as a fighter in each of her races, she said, the difference this time is her emphasis on specificity.

In good times, she said, voters “just want to know generalities. When times are tough, you’ve got to tell them exactly what you’ve done.”

At every stop, Boxer cast Fiorina as a heartless former chief executive who laid off thousands of workers while heading Hewlett-Packard. And she sought to show her own legislative muscle, as well as her attention to the most local of issues.

In Fresno, it was stimulus funding to maintain the jobs of several dozen police officers. In Stockton, it was her work seeking appropriations to deepen the Stockton Ship Channel and boost local commerce. In Monterey, she told local reporters how she had navigated the procedural hurdles of the Senate to shepherd through a provision protecting 54,000 acres of wilderness in Big Sur and the Los Padres National Forest.

“The ability to get the bill across the line to the president’s desk is sometimes very difficult,” Boxer said in an interview en route to the Monterey airport Wednesday. “After the years I’ve been there, I know who to go to.... These are the things you learn just by virtue of being a legislator.”

UC San Diego professor Thad Kousser said Boxer was trying to shore up what some have perceived as a weakness. While Dianne Feinstein, the state’s other Democratic senator, has long been viewed by voters as someone who has worked assiduously for local projects, Boxer has been better known for her focus on environmental policy and controversial topics such as abortion.

“She wasn’t really as focused on bringing home the bacon in California,” he said. “So I think she’s trying to get to rid of that reputation.”

Boxer’s campaign manager acknowledged that broadcasting her efforts to seek funding for California projects won’t be enough to overcome voters’ dissatisfaction with the speed of economic recovery.

“The economic climate is the first thing that makes it a very challenging year to run for reelection, wherever you are in the country,” said Boxer’s campaign manager, Rose Kapolczynski. “We’ve never said ‘Reelect Boxer because things are fine.’ It’s ‘Reelect Boxer, because she’s working hard to help the economy recover and she’s going to continue that work.’”

Hewing to that theme, Boxer repeatedly stressed that the recovery had been “excruciatingly slow” while alluding to the hundreds of workers she has met who are seeing the benefits of the stimulus.

“Is it enough? No,” Boxer said in Fresno. “The Economic Recovery Act by itself isn’t going to completely get us out of the woods.”

But she insisted her approach of continuing to press for “jobs bills” was preferable to Fiorina’s advocacy for deregulation and tax breaks for corporations and “the wealthiest people.”

As she sought to frame the contrast between her background and her opponent’s, Boxer rarely missed a chance to portray Fiorina as a high-flying former chief executive who “broke the hearts” of workers with waves of layoffs during her five-year tenure at Hewlett-Packard. In virtually every speech, Boxer mentioned the $21 million in severance that Fiorina received when she was dismissed from HP — suggesting that she is out of touch with struggling families around the state.

At the same time, after being characterized for months by her opponents as an arrogant and imperious senator, Boxer went to great lengths to show her softer side, stressing her humble roots as a “first-generation American” (on her mother’s side) who grew up in a small apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y. She also recognized her 48-year marriage and her role as a grandmother.

“Her whole political life, she’s been trying to show how tough she is when she’s been running against men,” Kousser said. “Now that she’s running against a woman, she can let out her grandmotherly side.”

With voters, he said, “I think it can’t hurt.”