Campaign jobs: adults only

Sen. Dianne Feinstein's independent-minded opponent finally gets serious -- and his youthful staff gets some high-powered additions.

By Anthony York

Published June 1, 2000 7:45PM (EDT)

John McCain has been to this Hyatt Regency before. The last time was right after his victory in the New Hampshire primary, in February, when McCain addressed the California Republican Party convention. Then, the hotel was flooded with activists and TV cameras. Wall dividers had to be moved to make room for the overflow crowd. The lobby of the Hyatt was electric.

Wednesday morning, as McCain shot a campaign commercial for the California GOP Senate nominee, Rep. Tom Campbell, the scene was a little different. There were but a handful of reporters swirling around the small conference room where McCain and Campbell would later hold a brief, joint press conference.

Huddled in a corner were eight male campaign staffers and volunteers, all of whom would have to show an ID in order to buy a six pack. Not even a hint of facial hair in the bunch. They had the schizophrenic uniform of political adolescents: Half wore T-shirts and jeans; the other half wore suits. They looked more like a collection of older brothers at a bar mitzvah than the kernel of a multimillion-dollar U.S. Senate campaign. And buzzing around them was their fearless, 24-year-old, lavender-clad leader: Andrea Jones, Campbell's campaign manager and the daughter of California Secretary of State Bill Jones.

One look at his team, and its clear that before he even gets to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Rep. Tom Campbell will have to win a war of perception. From the minute the iconoclastic, liberal Republican Campbell launched his Senate bid, he has had to fight off the impression that he didn't actually expect to beat Feinstein. The rumors have swirled from the outset. Campbell, who has been a tenured professor at Stanford Law School since 1987, was reportedly approached by the new dean of the school and asked to decide between politics and teaching. As early as last year, even many Republicans pegged Campbell's campaign as a suicide run, giving him an excuse to leave Congress gracefully and return to teaching.

The Campbell campaign says those stories were grossly exaggerated. Spokesman Suhail Khan said that Campbell did have some discussions when new dean Kathleen Sullivan came on board last year, but that it did not amount to any kind of threat or ultimatum. "He teaches one course per semester there. [Sullivan] and the congressman had talked about his teaching schedule, maybe having him taking on some more classes, and that kind of got spun into something else," he said. "It wasn't anything like an ultimatum."

His aides say Campbell is running simply because he wants to run, and that wouldn't be at all out of character. Campbell, like McCain, has earned a reputation for being a loose cannon in Washington. He was elected in 1995 to represent a district in which Democrats hold a 9-point registration advantage. But Campbell's moderate views on abortion and gun control, along with his wide libertarian streak have made him a perfect fit for his Silicon Valley congressional district. Campbell made enemies in Washington almost from the start, when he refused to support Newt Gingrich for House speaker in 1996. This year, he made a few more when he announced he would give up his House seat to take on Feinstein in a year when Republicans are struggling to hold on to control of the House.

"I'm sure some of his colleagues are saying, 'If you're going to have a midlife crisis, have it next cycle,'" joked Feinstein campaign consultant Bill Carrick.

Campbell quickly emerged as the front-runner in a field that had no strong GOP candidate. The GOP's first choice, Rep. Jim Rogan, backed out after his young twin daughters were diagnosed with epilepsy. The Rogan-Feinstein matchup was supposed to be one of the hottest Senate races in the country, but like other hypothetical Senate dream matchups, this one didn't pan out. So the baton fell to Campbell.

Speculation about Campbell's desire to stay in elected office returned to print earlier this month, when the choice of the young Jones to run the campaign was seen as a further sign that Campbell was not running this race to win. The California Journal said the hire helped "make the spiraling perception clinging to Campbell even tougher to remove." Despite the campaign's gloss -- that Jones symbolized a younger generation of voters crucial to Campbell's campaign -- the lack of activity, press coverage or progress the challenger was making against the well-known and liked incumbent fit easily into the analysis that Campbell was dragging his feet.

But on Wednesday, the campaign seemed to get serious. For one, he has begun to reassemble a political team that has worked against Feinstein before, and beaten her -- the team of former California Gov. Pete Wilson. Campbell has sought council from former Wilson consultant Joe Schumate. The shift seemed abundantly clear at Wednesday's press conference, as former Wilson communications director Sean Walsh -- calling himself only "a Campbell supporter" -- chatted up the press before shuttling the candidate off to the next event. Jones, the campaign manager, watched Walsh's mini press conference from outside the huddle.

Walsh did not deny the possibility that he may come on board in an official capacity in the coming weeks, and said that there will be a full unveiling of a new campaign team in the coming weeks, one designed to have "maximum effect among political reporters, insiders and fund-raisers."

"This is the beginning formation of a credible and serious campaign," Walsh said, alluding to the campaign's early missteps without formally acknowledging them. "He's got a foundation, now he has to build it from the ground floor up."

Campbell has also hired Bill Whalen, Wilson's former senior speechwriter, as a senior advisor. Whalen and Walsh both acknowledge that Campbell has some makeup work to do, but they are desperately trying to sell the fact that they represent a campaign shake-up. The message Wednesday was that the pros are coming, and that reporters and fund-raisers should start taking Tom Campbell's Senate candidacy for real.

Exhibit A: John McCain was on hand to cut a quick TV spot and sweet-talk reporters to help drive the message home.

"Tom Campbell is a reformer who stands up for what he believes in," McCain said. "When people start focusing on this race in September and October, they'll have a choice between a real reformer ... and a traditional, big government, big spending" senator.

For Campbell, there is not a lot of time. Even many of his supporters acknowledge that his campaign has been adrift since the primary. To help get his message out to voters in this media-driven state, Campbell will first have to convince donors and members of the National Republican Senatorial Committee in Washington that he is a good political investment. According to the latest campaign filings available, from the Center for Responsive Politics, Feinstein has more than $2.2 million on hand, while Campbell has only $614,000.

But Bill Carrick seemed unmoved and unworried about any notion that the Campbell campaign is ramping up. "He's been more than adrift, he's back at the faculty lounge at Stanford," Carrick said. "He's just thinking out loud at the faculty lounge with big thoughts. There's no evidence of anything at all to suggest that he's going to be able to raise any money and run a real campaign."

If Campbell has been reluctant to respond to this kind of criticism from Feinstein's advisors, you can bet that Team Wilson will not be. This is a group that has fought tough races and won, and certainly not without criticism. In 1994, Wilson and his team turned around a double-digit deficit against his Democratic challenger, Kathleen Brown, into a landslide victory. Campbell is hoping they can work some of the same magic on him.

In this race between two centrist candidates, Campbell has been slow to find a compelling reason for Californians to dump their senior senator in favor of an unknown congressman who has a number of enemies within his own party. On this day, McCain standing next to him, Campbell predictably invoked the R-word in his favor.

"Reform is the heart of my campaign," he said. "I support campaign finance reform for everybody, unlike Senator Feinstein who wanted to carve out certain exemptions for Democratic donors." Campbell also cited his tax reform plan, which would replace the income tax with a 20 percent national sales tax.

That's practically an all-out assault, coming from Campbell, who has been known to praise Feinstein on the stump, even calling her a "good senator." A recent San Diego Union-Tribune headline accused Campbell of taking a "kid-gloves approach to Feinstein."

Campbell's new team, however, seems eager to come out swinging and take a more direct approach. "We're going to be taking it right to Dianne's doorstep," Walsh said. "Is it going to be nasty? No, it's not. But it's going to be a very strong comparative campaign."

Carrick seems eager to make the comparison. "He's taking positions that have alienated people in his own world," he said. "People in Silicon Valley that may normally have felt some interest in giving him money all backed off when he came out for taxing the Internet, screwing around with trade issues and the national sales tax." (Campbell hedged on supporting the recent China trade bill, which narrowly passed the House, before deciding to support the bill at the eleventh hour.)

Though she is well-respected both in Washington and California, Feinstein is certainly not invincible. After narrowly losing the California governors race to Wilson in 1990, she won the election for Wilsons Senate seat easily in 1992. Then came a brush with political death in 1994, when Rep. Michael Huffington dropped $30 million into his Senate run, and came within a couple of points of knocking her off. True, 1994 was a banner Republican year, but Feinstein was running against an empty suit, even if it was a suit that came with 30 mil. Feinstein has also angered some members of the Democratic base with her centrist positions. A recent Field Poll in California showed her having 95 percent name recognition among her constituents, but only a 55 percent approval rating.

The reassembling of the Wilson team in California comes at a time when the governor's name has been used by Democrats as a synonym for Satan, turning Wilson's support of Proposition 187 -- which would have restricted benefits to illegal immigrants -- in 1994 into a device for attracting Latino voters. It also comes as the nominal head of the party, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, has done everything to avoid association with Wilson, even taking some veiled jabs at the former California governor during a campaign visit earlier this year. But the fact is that Wilson was the only Republican throughout the 1990s to run a successful race at the top of the ticket in California.

But if history is any guide, Campbell's fate is now inextricably linked to Bush. In 1992 and 1996, Republicans gave up on California, ceding the state to Bill Clinton. As President Bush and Bob Dole went down to defeat without a fight, they dragged down the rest of the GOP ticket in California -- with Democrats picking up a U.S. Senate seat and bolstering their statehouse majorities in those years. In 1998, Democrats made more big gains in California, taking the governorship as well. Now, Republicans acknowledge they will need Bush to run a strong campaign in California if Campbell is to have any chance of knocking off Feinstein.

McCain said that the elder Bush and Dole both "made a mistake" in writing off California, but that this year promised to be different. "This will be a battleground state," he said. "This state will be vigorously contested by Governor Bush and the Republican Party."

But in order for Campbell to get the financial help he needs from the party, he has to prove to party operatives that he is a viable candidate. That means hanging close to Feinstein through mid-October. "That's really our job now," said one Campbell advisor. "We've got to get ourselves up and running, and make this a competitive race." As Campbell himself told a group of political reporters over lunch earlier this month, if he is "close at the time when we are both on TV, and it's a good year for Republicans, I win."

Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

MORE FROM Anthony York

Related Topics ------------------------------------------