By Dan Walters The Sacramento Bee
Published: Monday, Aug. 9, 2010 – 12:00 am | Page 3A
Last Modified: Monday, Aug. 9, 2010 – 6:41 am

California voters may not know it yet, but whether they give U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer a fourth term or elect Carly Fiorina could determine partisan control of the Senate and, therefore, the fate of Barack Obama’s presidency.

It’s not a probability, at least not yet. But it’s becoming a possibility as national political oddsmakers upgrade Republican prospects of taking the Senate.

One of the most respected oddsmakers, Roll Call’s Stuart Rothenberg, has not only declared Senate control to be in play but identified the Boxer-Fiorina contest as one that would have to go the GOP’s way for the party to have a chance.

Boxer, as Rothenberg notes, has never been particularly popular with California voters. In a year when anti-incumbent sentiment is strong and with an opponent who’s a cut above past foes, Boxer could be in trouble.

She apparently knows it. We’ve been seeing a lot of her of late, doing the sorts of things that embattled incumbents do, such as showing up at construction projects to tout bringing home the bacon.

The most recent statewide poll by the Field Institute found that Boxer and Fiorina are virtually tied – and more importantly, Boxer’s negatives are near an all-time high.

“Over the past 16 months the Field Poll has conducted five statewide surveys pairing Boxer and Fiorina in the Senate contest,” the institute said. “The results show that Boxer’s once sizable 30-point advantage over Fiorina in March of last year has narrowed considerably in recent months.

“Since January of this year the image that voters have of Boxer has become more negative. More voters now hold an unfavorable (52 percent) than favorable (41 percent) view of her. Also, appraisals of the job Boxer is doing have declined and are now close to the lowest ratings she has received in her eighteen-year tenure.”

That’s dangerous territory in a year like this one. The question, of course, is whether Fiorina can exploit the opening.

That she is a woman is one advantage over Boxer’s previous opponents and another is her ability – albeit limited – to self-finance a campaign. Her history as a corporate executive cuts both ways, and her personal opposition to abortion could be a negative.

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