The (8-Week) Sprint Is On
With Labor Day weekend in the rear-view mirror, we turn to the sprint portion of the campaign season. Well, a “sprint” in the sense that there are “only” eight weeks left until Election Day and all campaigns are now at full-throttle — stumping, advertising, thrusting and parrying.
With all apologies to the folks who run the Amgen Tour of California, what we have here in a political peloton. Jerry Brown, Meg Whitman, Barbara Boxer and Carly Fiorina are riding in the same pack. Each may claim a lead of some sort, depending on which poll they choose to interpret (spin). But both races are dead heats. Feel free to pick a winner, but the fact is your guess is as good as mine.
What is worth noting is the distinctly different approach each campaign has taken in this remarkable election year. Let’s take a quick look at each one.
1) Meg Whitman. The college football season just kick off, the pros start later this week, but for the past 18 months the Whitman campaign has given us “three yards and a cloud of dust”. That was the late great Woody Hayes’ penchant for straight-ahead, no-nonsense, carrying of the ball (Hayes’ theory being that anytime a quarterback threw the ball, there were only three outcomes, two of which were negative). Whitman’s campaign has been similarly one-dimensional and mechanical. It’s an unprecedented sum spent on media buys, plus a candidate determined to stay steadfast in the political center. The press may obsess over the spending, but it’s a wise strategy for at least reasons: (1) Brown can’t attack her as an extremist (something we’ll get into in the Senate race); (2) with far less to spend, the pressure’s on Jerry to advertise wisely. In the end, despite all the spending and the smash-mouth approach, Whitman might eke out only the narrowest of wins. But as Woody Hayes once said: “The only meaningful statistic is the number of games won.”
2) Jerry Brown. So far, it’s been “watch waiting (a phrase I became all too familiar with when a family member was diagnosed with prostate cancer). Brown’s been out there campaigning . . . somewhat. And he’s advertised . . . again, somewhat. But mostly it’s been watchful waiting — watching Meg run, waiting to make his move. And, yesterday, he moved. “I’m going to level with you. I’m going to tell you the truth,” he said a labor rally (while he also unveiled a 30-second television ad). “California is not a logo to be rebranded by Meg Whitman.” That’s it? That’s what we’ve waited for all this time? Jerry has $24 million cash on hand and says he’ll spend up to $35 million by the time November rolls around. That’s an appetizer, to Whitman’s entrée. So he’s betting on something else: in a contrarian year, what could be more contrarian than the guy who’s been around forever and is spending cents to his opponent’s dollars? Clever? Yes. But it’s a strategy that stems perhaps more from necessity than sincerity.
3) Barbara Boxer. IBM, the New York Giants. Now, the Golden State political “Big Blue” — the belief that California’s edge in Democratic voters and its penchant for left-of-center social issues will reward La Boxer with another six years in Washington. It’s worked three times before for Boxer. But it also helped that she ran in (a) good years for Democrats and (b) against Republicans either financially or socially challenged. Fiorina obviously is different from anyone Boxer’s faced before. But the story here may be Boxer herself. George Skelton nailed it the other day in his column: in last week’s debate, Boxer came across as somewhat disjoined, fidgety and prone to government-speak, a common malady among longtime Washington pols. If Boxer wins, it’s because the Big Blue quiltwork held together for her one more time. And if she loses: I’d argue that the senator’s style (no, not her hair) was “so yesterday”: the combativeness got old, the record lacked heft. Familiarity can breed contempt, and in this environment sitting senators with little to show for their tenure seem to be held in particular contempt.
4) Carly Fiorina. Welcome to the Big Red Machine. She’s not running in a red state, but you couldn’t tell that from Fiorina’s approach. She’s pro-life, anti-stimulus, a global warming skeptic (although her embrace of Prop 23, coming as it did on a let’s-hope-nobody’s-paying-attention Friday afternoon, was kinda weak). Fiorina ran as a conservative in a right-tilting GOP Senate primary and stayed there. Her insistence on sticking to the right makes for a wonderful contrast to the Whitman effort, which is relentlessly cautious. This is not the first time a conservative Republican has tried to surf a GOP wave in an off-year election. Michael Huffington tried it against Dianne Feinstein in 1994. The big differences this time: Fiorina is far more compelling than Huffington, and has come a long way as a direct and compelling messenger; meanwhile, Boxer is no Feinstein in terms of emanating confidence and assurance. Keep an eye on this race. It’s not necessarily true that, as California goes, so goes the nation. But as this particular goes, so too could majority control of the Senate.