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Previewing Boxer v. Fiorina

From msnbc.com’s Tom Curry and Carrie Dann

At this point in a re-election race, secure Democratic senators in Democratic-leaning states generally poll at a comfortable 55 percent or better in the matchup against a Republican opponent (Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland are examples).

But that’s not the case in California, where three-term Sen. Barbara Boxer will square off against GOP challenger Carly Fiorina in the pair's first debate Wednesday night. An average of the five most recent public polls shows Boxer getting 45 percent to Fiorina’s 41 percent. About 12 percent of respondents remain undecided.

President Barack Obama has trekked to California twice in recent months to help raise funds for Boxer, and Vice President Joe Biden held a fundraiser for her in July.

“I don't travel for just anybody,” Obama told attendees at a San Francisco fundraiser in May. “But when it comes to Barbara Boxer, I'm a lot like many of you, which is, if she calls and she says, ‘I need some help,’ then we're going to give her some help...”

While not as astonishing as Republican Sen. Scott Brown’s upset win last January in Massachusetts, a Fiorina victory would be dramatic. California hasn't elected a Republican senator since 1988. That was also the last time a Republican presidential candidate carried California.

Democrats enjoy an edge in party registration, with about 7.5 million Democrats to 5.2 million Republicans in the state; there are 3.4 million registered independents.

Boxer won her seat in 1992, lifted on the wave led by Bill Clinton in what was then dubbed “the Year of the Woman.” She beat conservative Los Angeles television and radio pundit Bruce Herschensohn by about half a million votes, or 5 percentage points.

In 1998 and 2006, Boxer easily fended off weak Republican rivals. In 2006, her victory margin was nearly 2.4 million votes.

Boxer’s current struggle isn’t entirely surprising in a year in which polls indicate a striking enthusiasm deficit among Democratic voters and in which fellow Democratic senators Patty Murray in Washington and Russ Feingold in Wisconsin are also locked in competitive contests, despite their states' Democratic lean.

Fiorina, the former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, served as a high-profile broadcast surrogate for Republican presidential candidate John McCain. She was ubiquitous on cable television before she was shunted aside after making the impolitic comment that McCain and his running mate Sarah Palin (and Obama and Biden) lacked the experience to run a corporation such as HP. (Palin endorsed Fiorina this year.)

“Boxer is out of practice” for a campaign debate, said John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. “Six years ago, she debated Bill Jones exactly once. She has taken part in floor discussions in the Senate, but the institution does not conduct ‘debate’ in the normal sense of the term.”

But, Pitney added, “don't count Boxer out. She knows the issues cold. Expect her to go after Fiorina on issues such as the environment. Her goal will be to portray Fiorina as too conservative for the California electorate.”

Democrats have slammed Fiorina for being rated “worst technology company CEO” in a 2005 USA Today story and for the job cuts she ordered when heading HP. They’ve assailed her for accepting Palin’s endorsement, for calling herself “pro-life,” and supporting the Arizona immigration law which would allow police to check the immigration status of people they stop during their routine duties.

Democrats have also tried to raise expectations for Fiorina’s performance, circulating a video showing GOP consultant and former Reagan speechwriter Ken Khachigian saying, “Next to Ronald Reagan and Bruce Herschensohn, she's very close to being one of the finest communicators on television that I've ever worked with.”

Fiorina has a penchant for hard-edged comments. She recently mocked Boxer’s concern that greenhouse gas emissions pose a national security issue: "Terrorism kills -- and Barbara Boxer's worried about the weather," said Fiorina in a TV ad.

Fiorina has also painted Boxer as a lifetime politician: she was first elected to public office in 1976 as a member of the Board of Supervisors in Marin County, north of San Francisco.

“When Barbara Boxer started getting a paycheck from us, a gallon of gasoline was 55 cents … and the number one song was Barbra Streisand’s ‘The Way We Were,’” Fiorina said in a recent speech.

"It's true that this is what I like to do. I'm proud of it," Boxer replied in comments to the San Francisco Chronicle Tuesday.

Senate contests between two female candidates are rare. Since 1944, there have been eight Senate elections that pitted two women against each other, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

Of the seventeen women now serving in the Senate, seven have defeated another woman at some point in their Senate career. Of those, five were incumbents when they defeated a female challenger; one, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, was running for an open seat; and one, North Carolina Democrat Kay Hagen, challenged a sitting female senator -- Republican Elizabeth Dole.

The Boxer-Fiorina contest could end up being the closest woman v. woman race in history. The closest such race to date occurred in 2002, when Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., won re-election against Republican Suzanne Haik Terrell. Landrieu won with 52 percent of the vote to Terrell's 48 percent.

(The Boxer-Fiorina debate, from 7 to 8 p.m. Pacific Time, will be streamed live on SFGate.com, KTVU.com and KQEDnews.org.)