In his third try for the Senate, Tom Campbell, who holds a law degree from Harvard and a doctorate, may not have the fire that the party’s primary voters crave this year.

By Seema Mehta

March 29, 2010

Reporting from San Mateo, Calif. – In the days before the healthcare vote, Republicans passionately argued that the reform package was an affront to personal liberty and threatened the nation’s very future. One GOP leader angrily declared that it would lead to “Armageddon.”

A few days earlier, former Rep. Tom Campbell was about to deliver a routine speech touting himself as the best Republican to take on Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, when he departed from his prepared remarks to talk about healthcare. Campbell delivered a detailed and dispassionate critique of Democratic maneuvers to pass the legislation.

He also elaborated on his alternative reform proposal to insure the poor and people with preexisting conditions, with a complex system in which providers would bid for contracts limited to a set amount of government dollars.

The aside showcased Campbell’s strengths and weaknesses as a candidate — he is widely acknowledged as intelligent, prepared and detailed. One of his Republican primary rivals, Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, routinely refers to him as “one of the smartest guys in the room.”

But his campaign speeches can feel more like lectures delivered by a professor — which Campbell is — than a politician’s battle cry. He delves into snooze-inducing minutiae and routinely refers to arcane legislation like the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act and the Glass-Steagall Act (federal legislation about balanced budgets and banking reform, respectively).

His brains and demeanor could collide with the prevailing political winds this year as no other. A consummate and genteel academic who holds degrees from two of the nation’s top universities, he is seeking election at a time when white-hot anger and verbal flame-throwing is more likely to arouse the GOP primary voters who will decide his fate in June.

“Tom Campbell is a no-drama kind of guy,” said Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. “He’s not one for extravagant gestures. You don’t see Tom Campbell really firing up a crowd. That’s just not his style. His strength is his mastery of the issues.”

Campbell’s run for Senate is his third. He narrowly lost the Republican primary in 1992; conservative primary winner Bruce Herschensohn later gave Boxer her first Senate victory. And Campbell was roundly defeated when he ran against Sen. Dianne Feinstein in 2000.

This time, he became the early front-runner after he switched from the governor’s race into a Senate primary whose other contestants were largely unknown. But his campaign style and historically lackluster fundraising are proving to be challenges and could explain why his polling numbers have remained stagnant while chief rival Carly Fiorina’s have steadily risen to meet Campbell’s.

The event in San Mateo was the first of several days on the campaign trail, a marked change from the candidate’s schedule since he entered the race in January. In the two months between Campbell’s entry and mid-March, he held a little more than a dozen public events. His rivals were crisscrossing the state: Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard chief, held 48 events and DeVore nearly as many.

Campbell strategist Ray McNally said Campbell is teaching two classes at Chapman University and needs several hours a week to prepare. He spends his remaining time laying the groundwork for his run. “He’s raising money every day and working on endorsements every day,” McNally said. Campbell has held several “tele-townhalls,” where likely Republican voters are patched into a conference call with the candidate. One on healthcare earlier this month attracted 7,000 listeners.

“I hope you agree this is the best way to campaign,” he concluded after answering voters’ questions for nearly 90 minutes.

More than anything else, Campbell is staking his claim on his resume. He has a doctorate in economics from the University of Chicago and a law degree from Harvard.

He taught law at Stanford and was the dean of UC Berkeley’s business school. He represented Silicon Valley for nine years in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he earned a reputation as a fiscal hawk, and served as California’s finance director.

“My entire career has been economic issues, and that’s the strength of the focus today,” he told more than 100 people at a luncheon at the Elks Lodge. “We are in need of fiscal responsibility like never before in this country.”

Campbell has laid out detailed policy proposals, such as his plan to reduce the federal deficit by 56%, to $562 billion, by creating non-defense spending caps, eliminating stimulus spending planned for the next two years, using returned bank bailout money to cut the deficit and other measures.

Underlying Campbell’s run is a desire to correct history. He believes that had he won the primary in 1992, he would have defeated Boxer.

“Better late than never,” he said to delegates at the state Republican Party convention earlier this month in Santa Clara.

Money is key to his hopes, the candidate acknowledged when a man at the luncheon asked how he could best support Campbell.

“I would benefit greatly from your helping me financially,” Campbell said. “That is a direct answer.”

Campbell has spent much of his time as a candidate on the defensive, and not because of his liberal positions on social issues. Rivals attacked his Middle East policy and his association with Sami Al-Arian, a Florida professor who in 2006 pleaded guilty to helping a terrorist group.

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