WASHINGTON – Fresh from a history-making recall election that landed a Republican at the helm of one of the most liberal states in the union, the GOP is hoping that a wave of victory will topple Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer (search) in 2004.
"The recall and victory of Arnold Schwarzenegger has motivated the party and they are clearly going to focus on next year and carrying that momentum forward," said Dan Allen, spokesman for the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee (search).
"[Boxer] is extremely vulnerable," said media strategist Sheri Annis, who worked with Schwarzenegger in his successful referendum campaign for after-school program funding in 2002. "The Republicans just need to put up the right person."
Therein lies the rub, say political observers, some of whom agree that Boxer may not be in the best shape going into an election season. They point out that Republicans are having a difficult time recruiting a candidate with the guts and glamour to pull off a statewide ouster of a two-term U.S. senator.
"It’s a potential long shot until the Republicans get a candidate who shows some pizzazz or fund-raising ability" said Stu Rothenberg, political analyst and editor of the Rothenberg Political Report (search).
Rothenberg, who gauges the heady races in the campaign season, said he doesn't measure the Boxer re-election bid as any more than a "second tier race," and warned against reading a broader mandate for Republicans in Schwarzenegger's election to governor on Oct. 7.
A moderate on social issues, but wielding a fiscally conservative message to an economically beleaguered state, the former Hollywood actor was elected on the same ballot that recalled Democratic Gov. Gray Davis.
"The mandate was to get rid of Gray Davis and bring in someone new," said Rothenberg. "None of that had anything to do with Washington federal policy or Barbara Boxer really."
One of the GOP's best chances for mounting a credible challenge lay in recruiting Rep. David Dreier (search), R-Calif., who raised his profile co-chairing the Schwarzenegger campaign. He now heads Schwarzenegger's transition team and announced last week that he is happy in his current position representing the 26th District in Glendora and will be running for re-election.
So far, only a handful of Republicans have formally announced their intention to run against Boxer, none with any of the attention Dreier has garnered in his short time working with the new governor.
Former Los Altos Mayor Toni Casey, Ventura County Assemblyman Tony Strickland and former U.S. Treasurer Rosario Marin have all filed papers to run. Reports suggest former California Secretary of State Bill Jones may also be considering a run.
Rep. Darrell Issa (search), R-Calif., is also mulling over a chance to replace Boxer. After his financial contributions helped spark the recall petition process, he ran for the governorship but withdrew as Schwarzenegger's campaign gained traction over the summer. A conservative, Issa ran unsuccessfully against moderate former state Treasurer Matt Fong in the GOP primary to challenge Boxer in 1998.
With so much attention paid to the recall and Schwarzenegger's victory, little focus has yet been paid on the Senate race, say analysts, who add that Schwarzenegger's active endorsement of any GOP bidder for Boxer's seat would be integral to success.
But most agree that he's not going to go to bat for just any candidate, if anyone at all. "He uses his political capital when he feels the candidate is right," said Annis. "I have a feeling that Arnold will have a lot of say in who ends up running. The time is right for a moderate Republican in that Senate seat."
David Corn, editor of The Nation, suggested that Schwarzenegger might be more cautious than in his early days as a Hollywood actor and Republican activist.
"I am not sure if Schwarzenegger, coming in with all of the challenges he faces, is in a position to be a kingmaker and a senator-maker right away," Corn said.
But with or without the new governor's direct help, some Republicans believe the right candidate will be able to capitalize on the positive image he casts for their party, and Boxer's less-than-stellar numbers.
"California, at the end of the day, is fairly independent, and the Republican Party — until Arnold Schwarzenegger — hadn't given voters adequate reason to replace the Democrats in office," said Monty Warner, a GOP media consultant. "There's a different culture now. The ground troops are energized."
Boxer, an unabashed liberal, received an approval rating of 41 percent and a disapproval rating of 27 percent, with 32 percent of voters saying they didn't know, in a September survey by the Public Policy Institute of California. A July Field Poll showed 49 percent of respondents approved and 35 percent disapproved of Boxer.
Boxer campaign spokesman Roy Behr said the numbers are inconsequential and the numbers were lower at this point in the 1998 campaign. She still went on to beat her opponent Matt Fong 53 percent to 43 percent.
"Actions speak louder than words," said Behr. "If anyone truly thought she was beatable, you would see a flood of credible candidates in the race."
Lionel Chetwynd, a Hollywood screenwriter and filmmaker who says he is one of the few Republicans who actually exist in Tinseltown, called Boxer a polarizing figure with a strong base of liberal supporters who will fight hard for her re-election. The key to any GOP bid, he said, would be to follow what he calls the lead set by President Bush and Schwarzenegger — to support a moderate "big tent" Republican message.
"You'd have more of a chance of holding together a coalition like the one that elected Arnold Schwarzenegger," he said. "With the right candidate, Boxer is fatally vulnerable — with the wrong one she is unassailable."