The US Presidential Elections: Right-wing puritan bucks trend in polling

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The Independent Online
IF YOU were a newcomer to the United States and restricted your travels to California, you could be forgiven for thinking that the presidential elections are overrated. What once promised to be a critical battleground has been as uneventful as a no-score draw in the English Third Division.

George Bush abandoned the place as a lost cause weeks ago. His advisers concluded he stood no chance in a state where hundreds of thousands of jobs have been lost to the recession and defence cuts, and where Bill Clinton has maintained a 20-point lead. Beyond a few fund-raising trips, the President has stayed away, resigned to losing California's fat parcel of 54 electoral college votes (one-fifth of those needed to win).

However, at last, a genuine political conflict is fermenting. It concerns the race for California's two US Senate seats and centres on the rising fortunes of a far-right conservative, backed by an army of volunteers from the religious right. Until now, it has been widely assumed that, for the first time ever, California's Senate seats would be won by two Democratic women. Opinion polls indicated that Dianne Feinstein, a former mayor of San Francisco, and Barbara Boxer, a congresswoman, were as assured of victory as Mr Clinton himself. The scene was set for a historic assault on the Senate's male bastion (it currently has only two female members). It would be an important feminist victory in the Year of the Woman.

But the fly in the Democrats' ointment is Bruce Herschensohn, 59, a former local television political pundit and government film- maker, who is challenging Ms Boxer. In mid-September he was 19 points behind, but he has suddenly surged forward, more than halving the margin.

Mr Herschensohn is an unusual candidate. He has never held office, although he was special assistant to Richard Nixon during Watergate. His campaign staff portray him as a sackcloth-and- ashes puritan, who lives in a one- bedroom Hollywood apartment, and lives on cheese sandwiches. He has, they'll tell you, no cutlery and little furniture. He has no college education and started life as a box boy in a supermarket.

The intended message is clear: here is one political snout that will not be in the Washington gravy- trough. All this is meant to be contrasted with Ms Boxer, known by her detractors as 'Bouncing Barbara', a nickname she earned by writing 143 bad cheques on the House of Representatives bank.

Mr Herschensohn's policies are no less severe than his lifestyle. He wants to scrap the Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency. He favours maintaining defence spending, outlawing abortion, and introducing a flat-rate income tax. He says the Los Angeles riots were not due to economic deprivation but to people of 'very bad character'.

Extreme though he may be, his manifesto has not deterred such luminaries as Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon from chipping in with campaign cash, along with the usual suspects - including farmers, gun owners, and the religious fundamentalists. In sharp contrast, Ms Boxer, 51, is undisguisedly liberal, staunchly pro- choice, and in favour of slashing defence spending to fund domestic programmes.

Opinions differ over why Mr Herschensohn is bucking the trend. Ms Feinstein has kept a 19- point lead over her Republican challenger, John Seymour. Mr Seymour is a close associate of California's highly unpopular governor, Pete Wilson, and sticks so closely to Mr Bush's views that his Washington colleagues call him 'Velcro man'. So his cause appears hopeless.

Certainly, Mr Herschensohn has exploited the Democrats' complacency. He ran two weeks of unchallenged, television attack advertisements before the Boxer campaign woke up to what was going on. He also has a television personality's persuasiveness, and can make the most outlandish ideas sound palatable. But a deeper force may be at work.

'It may be that Californians are just not prepared to send two women to the Senate simultaneously,' said Dan Walters, a political analyst. 'They may not be ready for it.'

(Photograph omitted)