Sen. Barbara Boxer, left, the incumbent and a Democrat, responds to a question during her debate with Republican challenger Carly Fiorina. Fewer than a million people are believed to have watched. (Carlos Avila Gonzalez, Pool Photo / September 1, 2010)

By George Skelton, Capitol Journal
September 6, 2010

From Sacramento-
Political rookie Carly Fiorina should book every televised debate with U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer that the senator will permit.

The Republican Senate nominee is trying to do just that, actually. But Boxer has been skittish, as incumbents usually are, not desiring to share the stage with a lesser-known challenger.

But in this dangerous time for Democrats, Boxer should agree to a few more face-offs because she has some catching up to do on message delivery after the candidates’ first entertaining debate last week.

Chalk up that clash for Carly.

Boxer, bidding for a fourth term, has never been confronted by an opponent quite like Fiorina. The only one who could match Fiorina’s communication skills was conservative TV commentator Bruce Herschensohn in Boxer’s first Senate election in 1992.

But that was “the year of the woman,” an aggressive organizing effort by Democrats and a ticket led by Bill Clinton. This year, two women are running, Democrats seem unorganized, and Jerry Brown is no Clinton. Voters are cranky and it’s the year of the non-incumbent.

This probably will be Boxer’s toughest race ever. Currently it’s considered a tossup despite the state’s Democratic tilt.

There’s a lot of national attention on California because Boxer’s seat is one that the GOP almost certainly must pick up to gain 10 and recapture control of the Senate.

Fewer than a million viewers apparently watched the debate statewide. But it was the biggest event of the contest so far and came before either candidate began running TV ads pitching themselves for the Nov. 2 election. It generated a lot of newspaper, broadcast and blog coverage and may have set the tone for the remainder of the race.

If one hung on every word, as reporters tend to do, Boxer probably came out slightly ahead. She repeatedly emphasized Fiorina’s controversial stint as chief executive at Hewlett-Packard before being fired.

At HP, Boxer said in her opening statement, “She shipped 30,000 jobs overseas. Think of it!… And through all that pain, what did she do? She took $100 million. So that reminds me of Wall Street…. Bonuses at the top….

“I want to see the words ‘Made in America’ again.”

One of Fiorina’s responses sounded callous, if realistic: “This is the 21st century. Any job can go anywhere.”

In California, she continued: “We are destroying jobs, and others are fighting harder for our jobs.” She cited, among others, Texas, Mexico, China and India.

Boxer pounced on the conservative Republican for her opposition to abortion rights, a reliable issue for the liberal Democrat.

Fiorina acknowledged, after prodding by the moderator, that “if there were an opportunity” she’d vote to overturn the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortions. But, she quickly added, it’s “not an issue I’m running on.”

If Fiorina’s view prevailed, Boxer countered, women having abortions would go to jail or die in back alleys.

So Boxer scored points with Democrats and probably some independent swing voters — at least on paper, especially if one merely read the transcript afterward.

But if one watched the show in comfort on TV, as I did twice, Boxer’s message often came through as disjointed. She raced through lines, focused on notes, fidgeted, failed to speak clearly into the mike and talked to the hundreds in the audience rather than the hundreds of thousands at home.

She relied too much on eye-glazing Beltway lingo and blew what should have been easy shots.

Example: Trying to refute Fiorina’s false assertion that she had shepherded only four bills through Congress, Boxer countered that actually “1,000 Boxer provisions have been enacted.” Huh? Provisions? Is that like amendments? Just call them pieces of legislation.

Example: When Fiorina defended possession of assault weapons, Boxer could have recalled the drifter who shot up a Stockton schoolyard with an AK-47 in 1989, killing five. A Republican governor, George Deukmejian, then signed the first assault weapons ban.

Boxer seemed rusty — she was uncontested for the Democratic nomination — and in need of a workout by a debate coach.

In contrast, Fiorina looked polished, in control and a master of details. She seemed senatorial, a new face one could visualize in Congress.

Her main message: Boxer is a liberal career politician whose “policies are devastating for this state.” Nothing new there. Opponents have been claiming that for years. But in hard times, there’s likely to be a more receptive audience.

” ‘Recovery summer’ has become the summer of despair in California,” Fiorina said.

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