The Starr Report: The Hustings - Clinton effect hits California Democrats

Click to follow
WITH DEMOCRATS running (in the words of one Washington insider) "like scalded dogs" from President Bill Clinton, a dark shadow has been cast over the party's campaign for the November mid-term elections. The disarray is painfully visible in California, the most populous state, where two key races are overshadowed by the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

The Democratic candidate, Gray Davis, was - until this week - making strong running against his opponent, Dan Lungren, in the race to succeed Pete Wilson, the outgoing Republican, as governor. Davis was seen as the better, more charismatic speaker of the two.

The second key election is between Barbara Boxer, one of California's two Democratic senators, and Republican challenger, Matt Fong. Again, Ms Boxer has proved an abler debater anerience on Capitol Hill against an opponent who is untested in high office.

Now all bets are off. It is not that the voters are obsessed with Monica Lewinsky to the exclusion of such hot local issues as education, crime, taxes and Indian gambling rights - in fact the opinion polls suggest the opposite - but the language of the campaign races has changed completely, making it impossible to deliver any message that does not involve some mention of sexual morality or Kenneth Starr.

"If you think you can talk about those issues while ignoring what is going on in Washington, you are dead wrong," gubernatorial candidate Lungren said this week. In his view, the race has come down to issues not of substance, but of character.

That, of course, is a convenient partisan viewpoint. The more the Republicans focus on the President's troubles, the more they boost otherwise lacklustre candidates.

It is also true, however, that the Democrats see themselves as being in trouble. Senator Boxer, in particular, has multiple reasons to feel embarrassed. Her daughter is married to Hillary Clinton's brother, making her link to the First Family closer than most. She has also been an ardent campaigner against sexual misconduct in public life.

Despite multiple attempts to distance herself from the president's behaviour - she took to the Senate floor this week to decry him as "immoral" - she has found it hard to steer the campaign away from him.

"She's trying all she can, but her message just isn't getting through," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst.