Former Secretary of State Bill Jones (search) staged the first act of his political comeback Tuesday by beating his main Republican rivals for the chance to challenge U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer. (search

Jones had 56 percent in early returns with former U.S. Treasurer Rosario Marin (searchtrailing with 14 percent of the vote. Former Assemblyman Howard Kaloogian had 8 percent.

California Republicans have put a premium on finding a strong challenger to Boxer, a liberal who has handily defeated opponents in her last two elections.

Jones stepped into the race in December, less than two years after being left for dead politically following a dismal showing in the 2002 GOP gubernatorial primary in which he finished third despite more experience than his two foes.

Due largely to name recognition built during three previous statewide races, Jones went to the polls as the presumptive front-runner. His main GOP rivals criticized him for being a colorless campaigner, but his backers said he was conserving his energy for the real fight ahead.

The most recent polls, taken nearly two weeks before election day, showed Jones holding a wide lead over his three lesser-known opponents. The Fresno-area rancher, who has been endorsed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (search), served twice as California secretary of state and ran for governor in the 2002 Republican primary.

But the polls also showed sizable numbers of voters still unfamiliar with -- and undecided about -- the whole field, a wild card that analysts said could upset Jones' confident march toward a matchup with Boxer.

Marin campaigned on the strength of her support for abortion rights (search), while Kaloogian staked out the conservative ground to Jones' right.

Pointing to his relatively small war chest, all three tried to characterize Jones as too weak to take on Boxer, a liberal legislator who is one of the state GOP's favorite targets.

Campaign strategist Ed Rollins said Jones would need to raise $20 million to defeat the two-term Boxer. Since announcing his campaign in December, Jones has raised about $1.3 million. Boxer, meanwhile, so far has raised $9.6 million for her re-election.

If Jones wins in November, he would be the first candidate to unseat an elected California senator since Republican S.I. Hayakawa defeated incumbent John V. Tunney in 1976.

Jones, 54, who spent more than two decades in public life before term limits forced him to step down as secretary of state in 2002, cast his vote on Tuesday near his Fresno home, and expressed optimism about his chances of defeating Boxer.

To beat Boxer, Jones said he will highlight his role in writing California's three-strikes law (search) and what he says is his superior ability to obtain federal funding for California with Republicans in control of both Congress and the White House.

Boxer, however, said she is ready to defend her record of fighting the Bush administration on environmental and economic issues.

"In terms of fundraising and polls, I'm better now than I ever was," she said. "But I'm under no illusion that it will be easy. It is going to be a very hard race."