CITY OF INDUSTRY, Calif. – Republican Matt Fong (search) was confident he'd win his 1998 U.S. Senate race, but then Democrat Barbara Boxer (search) mowed him down with attack ads casting him as an extreme right-winger on abortion, gun control and the environment.
Now Fong has some advice for Boxer's latest adversary, former California Secretary of State Bill Jones: Don't make the same mistake I made.
"She succeeded in defining me," said Fong, who now owns a consulting firm. "My kids, who at the time were going to public high school, came home and said, 'You know, kids at our school believe that you're handing out guns on Halloween.'"
Fong said he was never able to paint an opposing picture of Boxer, an incumbent with broader recognition. A Boxer spokesman disagreed, saying voters saw each candidates' records for what they were.
"They saw that one was in step and the other was not, and they voted for the one that more closely matched their views and values," said Roy Behr.
Boxer has already shown she will use the same tactics against Jones that she used against Fong. She kicked off her campaign this month by claiming Jones was "so far to the right that even the Republicans will disagree with him."
California Republicans have long said the opposite of Boxer, calling her a liberal who is out of synch with her constituents. Yet the GOP twice has failed to find somebody who could defeat her.
The race against Jones will help decide who controls the Senate, where the Republicans hold a 51-48 majority.
Jones insists he will not let Boxer define him.
"Unfortunately, Barbara Boxer is good at wedge issues. She wants to talk about them every time," Jones said at a recent campaign stop. "My last check on the people of California they were concerned about safe streets, a good education for their children and jobs for themselves and their family."
Still, Jones could prove an easier target than Fong, as he holds more conservative views on most social issues. Fong was more centrist, believing, for example, that abortion should be legal during the first trimester.
But that didn't matter when Boxer started calling him "part of the extreme" and aired hard-hitting ads to illustrate the claim. One commercial suggested Fong would weaken clean-air and clean-water laws. Another labeled him "the gun lobby's favorite candidate."
The ads went mostly unanswered and Boxer pulled ahead of Fong less than two weeks before Election Day, going on to beat him by 10 percentage points.
Fong, then California's treasurer and the son of Democratic Secretary of State March Fong Eu, said he knew the attacks would come and sought to inoculate himself by highlighting positive aspects of his record.
It didn't work.
"In retrospect we probably should have put more of our money into defining her and less on me," Fong said. "And if we had done that in early October, taken that gamble, we may have been able to put more doubt on who she was versus her ability to define me."
Jones' campaign strategists have said they would try to cast Boxer as weak on homeland security and jobs. Fong hopes his own fate at Boxer's hands will serve as an example.
"She is very ruthless in how she campaigns," Fong said. "I disagree with about 110 percent of everything about her but I do respect her as a candidate. She is tough."