WASHINGTON – Sen. Barbara Boxer (search) has always spoken up, but the California Democrat seems to have gotten a lot louder lately.
Her opposition to Condoleezza Rice's secretary of state nomination was so combative that it was parodied on Saturday Night Live. That came on the heels of her decision to sign onto a House member's complaint about Ohio voting problems, forcing Congress to debate them before certifying President Bush's re-election victory.
She's being touted on liberal blogs as the Democrats' best hope for president in 2008. Conservatives are excoriating her as — in House Minority Leader Tom DeLay's phrase — the leader of the "'X-Files' wing" of the Democratic Party.
But Boxer says she is just standing up for what she believes.
"I've always been this way," she says, "and I'm trying to figure out exactly why people suddenly find this to be interesting, you know. Somehow I have touched something inside people, and I have not ever had this happen before. The only thing I can think, after reading what people said, is a feeling that I'm asking the kind of questions and saying the kind of things that they are feeling."
Maybe she's becoming a spokeswoman, or even a symbol, for voters who oppose the Iraq war (search) or feel shut out by the Bush administration. Maybe, with the Democratic Party at sea after November's election losses, some people sense a leadership void and are looking to her to fill it.
Maybe it's not that Boxer's gotten louder but that other Democrats can barely be heard at all. At least, that's what some of her supporters are saying.
Whatever the explanation, Boxer, 64, has never been more in the spotlight. At a time when Republican dominance of Washington politics is nearly complete, a Marin County liberal who drives a hybrid car and opposes almost everything the GOP does has become a newly prominent face of the Democratic Party.
"She seems to be assuming the position of being an outspoken voice for, as someone else said, the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," says Los Angeles Democratic strategist Darry Sragow, echoing a phrase adopted by former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (search).
"In the wake of the losses in November ... there is a vacuum, there's handwringing, there's self-reflection, and she seems to have pretty sure footing as a determined, committed spokesperson for the liberals in the party," Sragow says. "Part of the handwringing will be over whether that's a good thing or a bad thing."
Barely five feet tall, Boxer must stand on a box — which she sometimes refers to as "the Boxer Box" — to see over the podium at press conferences. Fond of gold jewelry and colorful, occasionally mismatched outfits, she's energetic and aggressive, given to dressing down government officials at hearings, especially when reporters are within earshot.
That rankles Republicans, who say she's more show horse than work horse in the Senate. But sometimes, she can make even fellow Democrats squirm.
In the ongoing Democratic debate about how to effectively oppose the Republicans, Boxer represents a solution not everyone can embrace: She simply opposes, often without bothering to compromise. To some, she's too extreme and risks alienating moderate voters without producing legislative results.
Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, perhaps the most conservative Senate Democrat, is diplomatic in describing Boxer's role in the party: "You don't get a center if you don't get a left or right."
Sen. Mark Dayton of Minnesota, a fellow liberal who stood with Boxer in opposing Rice, criticized her on the Senate floor over her decision to bring the November election certification to a halt. He called it "seriously misguided."
But the combative qualities that turn some people off endear her to others.
"Democrats are so afraid of being criticized, or so afraid that they'll be accused of being too liberal, that they don't really act with the courage of their convictions. And then comes Barbara Boxer," says Madeleine Begun Kane, a writer from Queens, N.Y., who created a "President Boxer" blog. "She's been a shining light during an otherwise very depressing period."
For the record, Boxer says she has no interest in running for president. But she's gratified by the blogs and the Boxer for President bumper stickers selling for $3.95 on the Internet.
If she did ever want to try for president, she could point to some compelling evidence of electability.
In winning her third Senate term in November, Boxer was the nation's third-highest vote-getter, behind only Bush and Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry. She squashed Republican opponent Bill Jones by 20 percentage points, scoring a bigger share of the electorate than Dianne Feinstein (search), the state's other Democratic senator, got in her last election.
Since she left the House to run for Senate, Republicans have targeted Boxer as too liberal for California. She had tough races in 1992, when she beat a conservative television commentator by 5 percentage points, and 1998, when she defeated a former state treasurer by 10.
Republicans talked tough about taking her on in 2004 as well, but in the end they hardly even tried. Jones, a social conservative and former California secretary of state, was endorsed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (search); but he ran a weak campaign and never raised enough money to air a single television commercial.
"It's impossible for my opponents to say, 'Well she just squeaked by, she doesn't really represent a lot of people, she's a fluke.'" Boxer says. "Which is what they said the first two times."
Since Boxer and Feinstein joined the Senate in 1992's Year of the Woman (search), Feinstein has been the more prominent. Although they have cooperated on initiatives and vote together more often than not, they do not have a close relationship and part ways on some issues, including the Iraq war and the Rice nomination.
Republicans say they can work with Feinstein. Her advice and endorsement are courted by Schwarzenegger and others on issues while Boxer, whom they generally despise, is left on the sidelines.
"I don't think attack dogs are ever useful," said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who lost a 1998 GOP primary election for the chance to run against Boxer.
But lately it's been Boxer in the headlines, sought out by reporters from The New York Times and Rolling Stone, and parodied on SNL.
In the skit that aired Jan. 22, Boxer, as portrayed by actress Amy Poehler, used a series of props to interrogate Rice — among them a packet of baloney, a poster of the number zero (representing weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq), and a bar graph with one barely visible bar ("the truth") and another bar stretching the length of the chart ("what you say").
Boxer, who did arm herself with several enlarged maps and quotations during Rice's confirmation hearing, loved the skit. "They really nailed me," she says. "It was the funniest thing I've ever seen."
Leading the charge for the opposition isn't new for Boxer. As a Brooklyn newlywed, she once organized fellow apartment building tenants to petition for carpeting. As a House member in 1991, she led fellow congresswomen up the steps of the Senate to demand hearings into Anita Hill's sexual harassment claims against Clarence Thomas (search). She led recent opposition to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (search) (successfully), and against the ban on what opponents call partial birth abortion (unsuccessfully).
Some Republicans have suggested that Boxer should have accepted Bush's re-election victory as a sign of acceptance for his secretary of state nominee, and kept her mouth shut on the Rice nomination.
She's in no danger of doing that — on any issue.
"Bush got 60 million votes plus and Kerry got 57 million votes plus, so you can't say it isn't a sizable portion of the country that doesn't deserve to be heard," Boxer said. "They do deserve to be heard; and even if they are far left, they deserve to be heard."