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Last weeks of GOP Senate primary race focus on Boxer

The leading Republicans competing for their party’s nomination for the U.S. Senate moved into the final phase of their campaign Friday, largely seeking to ignore each other and focus, instead, on the incumbent they hope to unseat, Democrat Barbara Boxer.

The most recent polls have shown two of the candidates, former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina and former Rep. Tom Campbell, locked in a tight race for the June 8 primary, with Orange County Assemblyman Chuck DeVore trailing in a distant third.

That dynamic ordinarily might lead the two top contenders to spend the remaining 3½ weeks shredding one another’s records. But, instead, as the three finished their last debate of the campaign Thursday night in Los Angeles, Fiorina launched two new television spots that made no mention of her GOP opponents. Instead, they cast her as a “battle-tested conservative Republican” who would hold Boxer accountable for a “huge expansion of federal government.”

Campbell has his own spot that features unflattering footage of Boxer waving papers in the air and accuses her of profligate spending, arrogance and isolation from average Americans.

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Fiorina and Campbell have faced a significant hurdle in communicating with voters over the last couple of months: the primary race between Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner for the Republican nomination for governor has been attracting the lion’s share of voter and media attention. Aides to Campbell and Fiorina acknowledged Friday that partly as a result, the two Senate hopefuls are still trying to break through and educate undecided voters about their records.

But they also believe a crucial bloc of Republican voters are focused heavily on who is the most electable candidate. As a result, both camps say they currently plan to close out the race making the case to voters that they are the most viable challenger to topple Boxer, a three-term incumbent.

“There is a unifying theme in the Republican Party and it’s an extreme dislike of Barbara Boxer,” said Fiorina’s campaign manager, Marty Wilson. “There’s a real hunger for somebody that will have a real legitimate shot,” he said before arguing that Fiorina is that candidate.

Campbell’s strategist Ray McNally said the former congressman — who largely avoided attacking Fiorina in Thursday night’s debate — would also continue to focus on energizing voters frustrated with the Democratic senator while emphasizing his own record on cutting government spending.

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McNally dismissed Fiorina’s new ads as just “echoing what Tom Campbell has been doing.”

Fiorina’s campaign aides described their new spots as an “advertising blitz” and questioned whether Campbell would be able to keep up. McNally, however, said the Campbell campaign’s research indicated Fiorina had made a “very limited buy” of about $300,000. A Fiorina spokeswoman said their calculations were “100% inaccurate.”

For all the talk of a Boxer-focused campaign, aides to Fiorina and Campell have not ruled out the possibility of airing negative spots about their rivals’ records in the final weeks.

Indeed, each campaign has run some negative advertising, but they have kept it to nontraditional media. Campbell’s campaign, for example, released a Web video this week using negative quotes from books and press reports about Fiorina to criticize her for cutting thousands of jobs during her tenure at Hewlett-Packard and frame her record as a failure.

“Depending on how much money Fiorina spends and how aggressively she attacks him, Tom will have to decide whether he’s willing to counterattack her,” GOP consultant Kevin Spillane said. “He may well have to do that in order to survive and hang on to his lead.”

Two independent groups already have come to Fiorina’s aid by spending more than $1 million on mailings and ads condemning Campbell’s record on taxes. Fiorina has repeatedly criticized Campbell’s refusal to sign a pledge from Americans for Tax Reform promising to oppose higher taxes.

Republican strategist Sean Walsh, an aide to Campbell’s 2000 Senate bid who is neutral in this race, said he believes Fiorina’s campaign is preparing mailings faulting Campbell for the rate of state spending while he served as finance director under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Campbell’s challenge in the remaining weeks, Walsh said, will be to persuade Republican voters that he is conservative enough to satisfy their desires on jobs, the economy and spending.

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“At the same time, he needs to basically convince people that he is also moderate enough to win in a general election in a state that trends very significantly blue — and to do that, it works in his favor to make a hard push right at the very end,” Walsh said. Unlike Fiorina, Campbell supports abortion rights and gay marriage.

Boxer’s campaign manager Rose Kapolczynski said she would be ready to contrast Boxer’s record on economic issues with either challenger.

“Carly Fiorina has a record on jobs of laying off 28,000 workers and shipping American jobs overseas. Tom Campbell has record on the economy of being the Schwarzenegger budget director in the midst of our budget crisis,” she said. “So on the central issue of voter concern, no matter who the Republicans nominate, I think voters will have a clear choice.”

maeve.reston@latimes.com


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