Fiorina’s balancing act in US Senate race

With the California Senate race getting closer and closer to Election Day, and with the candidates still stuck in a philosophical back-and-forth, different candidates are beginning to place their trump cards on the table.

The Fiorina Campaign especially, having been dogged by charges of unseriousness in the face of its unconventional campaign ads, and shaky debate performances by its candidate, and now facing an increasingly well-funded opponent in Tom Campbell, has begun taking more and more serious steps.

Some context is appropriate – Fiorina’s campaign has always been in a complicated position with respect to its image in the Senate primary. Unlike Chuck DeVore, who has positioned himself as a conventional conservative alternative, and Tom Campbell, who has run with the moderate establishmentarian role that has become a fixture in Republican primaries, Fiorina has had a mixture of elements.

On the one hand, she has the populist appeal of a self-made political outsider; on the other hand, her status as a female candidate places her in a difficult double-bind – in order to win primary voters, she must appear more as a Michele Bachmann or a Sarah Palin than as an Olympia Snowe or a Susan Collins, especially given the rising power of Palinite populist thinking in the Tea Parties.

However, to win general election voters, such political positioning is likely to be less successful, given California’s liberal reputation. But as a woman, Fiorina does not have the luxury of middle ground enjoyed by Tom Campbell, which leaves her in the awkward position of running to the right of DeVore, while trying to avoid the quixotic turns of typical conservative candidates.

In this context, recent developments within the Fiorina campaign paint an increasingly interesting, and agnostic, picture. On the one hand, Fiorina has recently declared her opposition to abortion in outspoken terms, a move which is likely to endear her to the Bachmannite wing of the California GOP.  But on the other, she has attracted high profile endorsements from two figures whose connection to moderate Republicanism is either explicit or heavily implicit. What is more, the Fiorina campaign has taken serious steps to increase the visibility of its moderate Republican allies.

The most notable of these is the uber-moderate himself, John McCain, who recently stumped for Fiorina in a series of town hall meetings. McCain, who worked with Fiorina on his ill-fated 2008 Presidential bid, would ordinarily be just the sort of grand eminence a Senate candidate would want – Presidential aspirants usually make for convincing arm candy. However, McCain is a special case.

He faces a very tough Senate primary himself against the more down-the-line conservative J.D. Hayworth, and has been dogged by charges of illegitimacy due to his close working relationships with the press and with liberal fellow senators. Some conservative commentators have even attacked McCain’s far more popular (in Republican circles) running mate Sarah Palin for betrayal, given her support of the Senator from Arizona. These factors, especially in a primary controlled more closely than ever by ideological purists, may actually be a drag on Fiorina’s chances.

The other bit of support Fiorina has attracted, however, is even more potentially dangerous – that comes from former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. Rice, despite being something of a miniature conservative icon because of her handling of the later years of the Iraq War, has also been haunted by charges of excessive moderation, and has been increasingly tainted by her perceived connection with Colin Powell (despite the fact that the two disagreed over some of the most important issues).

Meanwhile, even if Condi does help Fiorina in the primary, her record as a Bush administration official may make for an awkward association, given Fiorina’s attempt to distance herself from fiscal irresponsibility, and also from the establishment GOP.

How these elements will play out in the election, however, remains to be seen.