Republican voters are in a quandary

Call it the Republican conundrum.

Anxious to retire their longtime nemesis, Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Republicans are faced with a quandary as they ponder the top two candidates: Do they vote for former Rep. Tom Campbell, whose more moderate stances, as one poll has found, could lead him to victory over Boxer in November? Or do they choose Carly Fiorina, whose conservative views put her to the right of California voters and may, according to the same poll, doom her against Boxer?

Voters in primaries have long had to debate whether ideological purity trumps the ability to attract votes in the middle of the electorate. This year, with days to go before Tuesday’s primary, Republicans in California — just as they have everywhere else — appear to be coming down sharply on the side of ideology. They were turning away from Campbell, who shelved his television ads for two days this week before returning to the airwaves minimally on Thursday.

Last weekend’s Los Angeles Times/USC poll had a seemingly contradictory conclusion: In the primary, Republican voters preferred Fiorina to Campbell by 15 points. In the general election, the much larger pool of voters preferred Campbell to Boxer, the three-term incumbent, by a margin of 45% to 38%, while primary leader Fiorina lost to the Democrat by almost the same margin.

Such a schism is not unusual — in California, or in the rest of the country.

“You see this battle for control in the Republican Party all over — between “tea party” activists and those who want to support those with a better chance of winning in November,” said UC San Diego political science professor Thad Kousser. “Winning the most seats and keeping your party pure? You are working at cross purposes.”

California voters, like those in other states, are feeling their ideological oats this year.

“One of the most important trends we’re seeing in national races this year is the way both parties’ bases are reasserting themselves to support the candidate who’s best for the base, rather than necessarily the general election,” said Dan Schnur, director of USC’s Unruh Institute of Politics. “The same dynamic that we’ve seen in Utah and Kentucky and Pennsylvania is what we’re seeing in the Republican primary in California.”

In California, that dynamic is playing out only on the GOP side in the top races because, for the most part, there are no hotly contested Democratic primaries. But in other states, the phenomenon that Schnur noted has been bipartisan.

In Utah, Republican Sen. Robert F. Bennett was ousted by party delegates at their state convention, losing the nomination and a chance to run for his fourth term. In Kentucky, Rand Paul prevailed in the U.S. Senate primary over a candidate backed by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. And in Pennsylvania, former Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, who had switched parties, lost his bid for the Democratic Senate nomination to underdog Rep. Joe Sestak.

Bob Stern, president of the non-partisan Center for Governmental Studies, said Fiorina could be “a tough opponent” for Boxer in the fall. But, he added, “Tom Campbell is Barbara Boxer’s worst nightmare.”

Fiorina’s camp, and Republicans who dislike Campbell, deny that premise. They note that, among other problems, Campbell has already lost one statewide election, against Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein in 2000.

“A few weeks back before it was even clear that Carly had a commanding lead in the polls, the Democratic Party put out a YouTube attack on Carly,” Fiorina spokesman Julie Soderlund wrote in an e-mail . “If Boxer believed that Campbell was the strongest candidate, he would have been savaged by her supporters throughout this campaign.”

Boxer has mostly remained above the fray. This week, though, her campaign blasted a new Fiorina TV spot that questioned Boxer’s commitment to fighting terrorism. Even among Democrats, however, there is concern that the three-term incumbent is vulnerable.

Adam Mendelsohn, a longtime aide to Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said the current quarrel over whether to side with Campbell or Fiorina was an extension of an age-old debate for California Republicans.

“There is a long history in California Republican politics of not choosing the best general election candidate,” he said. “There’s a constant debate in the Republican Party in California about whether the priority should be electability or purity.”

Mendelsohn and others pointed to 2002, when the GOP nominated conservative businessman Bill Simon over moderate Richard Riordan for governor. Simon then lost to the unpopular Democratic incumbent, Gray Davis, who was recalled in 2003. Schwarzenegger replaced Davis, but his liberal social views were not tested in a primary since the recall election was open to all voters.

A third candidate in the Senate race, Irvine Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, has been embraced by tea party groups around the state, and is perhaps the most ideologically pure conservative running. But he has been overshadowed the entire race by the better-known Campbell and the better-financed Fiorina. Still, DeVore’s track record as a conservative has forced Fiorina to defend her credentials among primary voters she is trying to woo.

A political neophyte, Fiorina has had to work for the loyalty of some conservative voters concerned that she lacks the lengthy voting record of Campbell or DeVore. Fiorina has offered a consistently conservative image: she opposes gay marriage and abortion rights and has signed the “taxpayer protection pledge,” which is pushed by the Americans for Tax Reform.

She has acknowledged that she has a hurdle to overcome with some Republican voters who may not be confident about her commitment to conservative values.

“One of the reasons it’s hard, maybe, for folks to believe that I am what I say I am is because, let’s face it, I was a CEO from Silicon Valley and there are stereotypes about CEOs from Silicon Valley,” she said at a tea party appearance last weekend in Clovis. “The stereotype is that we must all be pro-choice. We’re not. I’m a proud pro-life conservative.”

Campbell breaks with party orthodoxy on several fronts. He is in favor of gay marriage and abortion rights and has refused to sign a pledge that he will not raise taxes, which has alienated him from some in his party’s conservative base.

He doesn’t call it a gimmick (as many have), but says he won’t sign it because it makes no exception for emergencies. When the Loma Prieta earthquake hit in 1989, he said in an interview Saturday, state legislators raised the sales tax to pay for repairs. “You can’t predict the future,” he said.

Campbell has tried to raise questions about Fiorina’s commitment to the Republican Party. In an essay published Wednesday on a political website, Campbell noted that once, when the online magazine Salon asked her if she was a Republican, Fiorina responded “for now.”

Marilyn Carlson, 57, who attended a recent tea party meeting in Redlands, was dubious about Fiorina’s credibility as the conservative answer to the more moderate Campbell.

“Fiorina, I don’t think she has a track record,” Carlson said. “There’s been nothing there that’s shown that she’s conservative — just her saying that, doesn’t make it so.”

Fiorina’s considerable personal wealth has helped neutralize her lack of political identity. She had never run for office before, and her voting record has been spotty. In 2008, she became an economic advisor to Sen. John McCain when he ran for president — and was recently endorsed by McCain’s running mate, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

Although Campbell and Fiorina have been able to raise similar amounts of money from donors, she has loaned her campaign $5.5 million, which has given her a major advantage. (By contrast, Campbell’s cancellation of his TV advertising this week led some political analysts to conclude he had thrown in the towel. On Thursday, however, he aired a new ad that touted his polling edge over Boxer and encouraged Republicans to turn his way.)

Campbell, 57, comes across as a sober-minded academic, lacking the sparkle and ease that Fiorina, 55, usually displays in front of a crowd. Though he has not been in office for 10 years, some voters still perceive him as a career politician. That has provided another edge for Fiorina in this season of discontent, as has Fiorina’s gender.(California Republicans have never nominated a woman for the U.S. Senate.)

At recent candidate appearances around the state, the Republican conundrum plays out among conservative voters, who are excited about Fiorina or DeVore, but left somewhat cold by Campbell.

Lynne Morris, 60, a former teacher from Clovis who has seen all three candidates in person, said she does not believe Campbell will be a more formidable opponent to Boxer in the fall.

“She’s really good on her feet,” Morris said. “Carly was a new face, and she’s smart, and she’s been responsible to others in the professions that she’s had, she’s not somebody who’s made her life off politics.”

Campbell, she said, “just came across as another politician.”