Sen. Boxer's GOP Challengers Aren't Pulling Punches

President Obama travels to California on Tuesday to raise money for Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer. Her unabashed liberalism has marked her as a senator Republicans love to hate. And with voters' anti-incumbent mood, three potential Republican challengers think this is the year they can beat her.

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President Obama is in San Francisco today to help California Senator Barbara Boxer raise money in her bid for a fourth term. Boxer's liberalism has long made her a senator Republicans love to hate. And with voters' in an anti-incumbent mood, her Republican challengers think this is the year to beat her. NPR's Ina Jaffe has more.

INA JAFFE: There's a Barbara Boxer clip that her detractors love to play. It's from a Senate committee hearing and Brigadier General Michael Walsh was testifying.

Brigadier General MICHAEL WALSH (U.S. Army): Ma'am, the LACPR is...

Senator BARBARA BOXER (Democrat, California): You know, do me a favor, could you say senator instead of ma'am. It's just a thing. I worked so hard to get that title, so I'd appreciate it. Yes, thank you.

JAFFE: If you love Barbara Boxer, you think she's feisty. If you don't, you think she's abrasive. If you're one of her would-be Republican replacements, you think she's just plain wrong about nearly everything. That's the way it sounded at a recent debate between the three GOP hopefuls. Political novice Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett Packard, hit the senator on one of her signature issues - environmental protection.

Ms. CARLY FIORINA (Former CEO, Hewlett Packard): Barbara Boxer does not understand that families are more important than fish. Of course we all want to protect our environment, but common sense tells us there must be a balance.

JAFFE: Fiorina's chief rival is Tom Campbell. He's a law professor and former congressman making his third try for the Senate. He bashed Boxer as another tax and spend big government type.

Professor TOM CAMPBELL (Former Congressman): Senator Barbara Boxer, one of the biggest spenders that Congress has ever seen.

JAFFE: Campbell leads the arena in most polls, with state assembly member Chuck DeVore trailing far behind and more than a quarter of Republican voters undecided. But at a recent news conference, Boxer made it seem like it didn't much matter to her who she ran against or what they said about her.

Sen. BOXER: It's not the first time I've been a target of the right wing. I've been a target of the right wing ever since I started. And so people can say whatever they want.

JAFFE: In fact, Boxer's been tagged as vulnerable in previous elections and survived. And despite the sour mood of the voters, this year may just be more of the same, says Democratic consultant Chris Lehane.

Mr. CHRIS LEHANE: You're going to see the similar trajectory that we've seen in past Barbara Boxer races. She starts off below 50 percent. She campaigns hard. She raises money. And she ends up winning with 52, 53 percent of the vote.

JAFFE: But Jack Pitney, a professor at Claremont McKenna�College, says that Boxer won't have any coattails to ride, as she has in past elections.

Professor JACK PITNEY (Claremont McKenna�College): In '92 she ran when Bill Clinton was carrying the state by a substantial margin.

JAFFE: Six years later, he says, she benefited from Democrat Gray Davis winning the governor's race in a landslide.

Prof. PITNEY: Six years after that John Kerry won California by a very substantial margin.

JAFFE: And this time Boxer is likely to face a different kind of adversary than in the past, when she's run against doctrinaire conservative men. She might face her first female opponent in Carly Fiorina, the more conservative of the two frontrunners.

Tom Campbell, on the other hand, would be Boxer's first GOP Senate opponent who favors abortion rights, gay rights and some gun control. In fact, Campbell appeared shocked during the recent debate with Fiorina and DeVore that he was the only one of the three who thought that people on the no-fly list shouldn't be allowed to buy guns.

Prof. CAMPBELL: Oh my goodness.

(Soundbite of laughter)

State Assemblyman CHUCK DEVORE (Republican, California): It's called the Second Amendment, Tom.

Ms. FIORINA: That's why Tom Campbell has kind of a poor rating from the National Rifle Association right there.

Prof. CAMPBELL: If a person is on the no-fly list, at least you can you can ask until they are off the no-fly list. I can't believe what I'm hearing.

JAFFE: Whichever opponent Boxer faces, she'll also have to deal with voters who are either tired of her or at least very used to her. She seemed acutely aware of that when she addressed the state Democratic Party Convention last month.

Sen. BOXER: I need you in this election and I need you to be excited, as excited as the Tea Party people are. Will you help me? Will you get excited?

JAFFE: It may be hard to feel any excitement right now, though, when Boxer has no serious competition in the primary. Excitement may come next fall when Democrats know who her opponent is, when there's someone they can be against.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

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