WASHINGTON — The widely played video clip of U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer reprimanding a general for calling her "ma'am" is the gift that keeps on giving for the two Republicans hoping to challenge her next year.
Republicans Carly Fiorina and Chuck DeVore are trying to capitalize on the exchange by making it a key ingredient of their fundraising efforts and attempts to recruit grassroots support. Both campaigns say the video revs up a GOP base that already has long-standing animosity toward Boxer, among the most liberal members of the Senate.
Whether it will have currency beyond next June's Republican primary, when the winner will have to appeal to a much larger and more diverse audience, is an open question.
During a hearing last June, Boxer interrupted Brig. Gen. Michael Walsh of the Army Corps of Engineers in mid-sentence: "Do me a favor?" she said. "Could you say 'senator' instead of 'ma'am?' It's just a thing. I worked so hard to get that title, so I'd appreciate it. Yes, thank you."
Boxer said the general was not offended by her remarks, but many in the GOP clearly were, including the two Republican challengers.
Former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina thought the exchange was so memorable that it prompted her to create a Web site titled CallMeBarbara.com, which she uses to raise money and keep in touch with supporters.
Campaign aides said they could not quantify the site's appeal, except to say it has received thousands of hits and led to thousands of dollars in donations.
The campaign of state Assemblyman Chuck DeVore juxtaposed the Boxer clip with an Austin Powers movie frame showing the Dr. Evil character upbraiding those who dare refer to him as "Mr. Evil." The 30-second video has generated more than 108,000 clicks on YouTube. It's been one of the campaign's most popular tools for reaching out to potential supporters.
Barbara O'Connor, professor of communications at Sacramento State University, said the use of Boxer's comments from the hearing will no doubt fire up the GOP base during the primary campaign but probably will not hurt the third-term senator in the general election. Jobs, health care and other bread-and-butter issues are expected to take precedence.
"It's not the kind of thing that plays well in California," O'Connor said, referring to the type of criticism Fiorina and DeVore are leveling at the Boxer video. "I think the economy is the sole issue that people are thinking about."
Registered Republicans represent less than a third of California's electorate. Women, who vote in greater numbers than men in California, may well see Boxer's statement as a demand for equal treatment.
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"I think many California women resonate to the request to acknowledge their accomplishments," O'Connor said. "How you address someone is often a window to how much credibility you feel they have."
Leisa Brug Kline, the campaign manager for DeVore, expects that the Boxer video will be useful after the primary election because it illustrates the senator's regard for others. The popularity of the Dr. Evil video proves that people were upset by the exchange, she said.
"I don't know if it will be a huge issue, but it will be one because it boils down to demeanor and respect," Brug Kline said.
She said it's not easy to quantify the video's effect for the DeVore campaign: "It is more subtle than that. People view it, share it, sign up to our e-mail list, and eventually contribute. A large number of activists have seen the video, and they view it as a measure of our campaign's effectiveness."
Fiorina's campaign is focusing on the exchange because it exemplifies the tone voters have come to expect from Boxer, said Julie Soderlund, a spokeswoman for Fiorina.
"A member of the military calling somebody ma'am or sir certainly isn't something that's unusual," Soderlund said. "Most people who see the video recognize that and recognize the level of arrogance that Senator Boxer brought to the situation."
The Department of Defense has no official policy dictating how service members should address members of Congress, said Cmdr. Darryn James, a Pentagon spokesman.
Boxer said her opponents' focus on the exchange says more about them than it does about her. She's not about to apologize.
"Once in 17 years that I've been a senator, I asked a witness to call me senator, because we were having a back and forth and I kept saying 'general' and he kept saying 'ma'am', and it went general, ma'am, general, ma'am. And I thought, you know what, this is one of those times we ought to call each other by our titles," she said in an interview.
Boxer's strategy for dealing with the fallout is simple: Let her opponents talk about the exchange while she focuses on talking about jobs and other priorities. It's her way of conveying to voters that she is focused on the issues they care about while her opponents are focused on petty issues.
"If this is what she thinks is the most important issue as people are struggling to get jobs, and housing, and health care, it's fine," Boxer said in reference to Fiorina.
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