Campbell leads Boxer, but trails Fiorina

As the epic Republican Senate primary draws to a close, new data suggests that while the GOP has begun to make its choice, that choice may raise new questions once the dust has settled.  To this point, the race was more or less a dead heat, but now, the numbers are changing, and the expectations are changing with them.

Tom Campbell, the unconventional, mild-mannered moderate, once thought to be an inevitable choice despite his slim lead over former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, has now begun to suffer, raising the daunting question of what his campaign can do in the apparent absence of an “inevitable” message.

Meanwhile, Fiorina, despite having run what was by all accounts an initially undisciplined campaign with some unconventional ads (put charitably), has now begun to emerge as the choice of the party’s fiscally conservative base – a choice which her new competitors will need seemingly compelling evidence to combat, given the proximity of the primary.

A new Los Angeles Times/USC College of Arts and Sciences Poll also reveals a new trend. The Times itself reports:

     “Campbell and Fiorina had been locked in tight race for several months, but after a robust advertising push, Fiorina now leads Campbell 38% to 23% in a new Los Angeles Times/USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences poll. The other Republican contender, Assemblyman Chuck DeVore of Irvine, came in at 16%. 

Campbell’s glimmer of hope was in the potential match-ups with the incumbent, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, whom he led 45% to 38% while Fiorina trailed her by 6 percentage points. In an e-mail to supporters, Campbell slammed Fiorina’s personal contributions to her campaign, which now total more than $5.5 million.”

These results, as the San Jose Mercury News correctly notes, presents a tough question for Republicans: “Should they elect the candidate they feel most passionate about — or the person who can kick the Democrat they can’t stand out of office come November?”

If the premise of the question is accepted, Campbell clearly has the better of the argument, but given the people he will be attempting to woo, this is not a foregone conclusion. Especially considering that DeVore appears to be underperforming, it seems likely that the more ideological members of the party are the group most up for grabs at the moment.  And this is a group not particularly receptive to claims of “electability,” at least not when paired with ideological unorthodoxy.

Moreover, given the still lingering spirit of Scott Brown populism that hangs over the party, Fiorina would appear to have an easy counterargument to raise against the polling data suggesting that Campbell has a better shot against Boxer. That is, the lead Boxer enjoys is not so far off from what Campbell once enjoyed, and certainly not insurmountable, given the Blitzkrieg success Fiorina has recently masterminded.

Moreover, the hand-wringing by mainstream press outlets about how Fiorina might have made herself “unelectable” by going full-blown conservative in her campaign strategy, when paired with Fiorina’s endorsement by Sarah Palin, will provide Fiorina with ample opportunities to win over undecided GOP primary voters.

Campbell, of course, could still get the nod, but his ability to do so is hampered by his implicit funding disadvantage against Fiorina – not an impossible obstacle, but a formidable one.

Still, the primary is far from over, and given its exaggerated twists of the past few weeks, any attempt to preemptively declare its winner would be the height of folly.

Thus, Californians would be advised to heed the words of Bette Davis over the next few weeks: “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night!”