When Carly Fiorina appeared before a "tea party"-sponsored candidate forum in nearby El Dorado Hills here last week, she was full of fight.
"Barbara Boxer knows I can defeat her," the former chairman and chief executive of Hewlett-Packard said of the incumbent Democratic senator. "It is why her left-wing allies have been attacking me for months and months and months. . . . You know what I say? Bring. It. On!"
To Republicans, Boxer has never looked more vulnerable. As she seeks her fourth term, her poll numbers are lackluster. But Boxer is a combative and resilient campaigner in a state that has regularly frustrated Republicans in statewide races. Which is why the overriding issue for Republican voters as they prepare to select their nominee is not just who is sufficiently conservative, but also who can win in November.
Republicans have three choices in Tuesday's primary. Each offers a distinctly different model for Republicans seeking a comeback after their disastrous election results in 2006 and 2008. Fiorina is the newcomer to politics in a year when outsiders appear to have an advantage over established politicians. Tom Campbell is a former House member and former California budget director who is conservative on economic issues and moderate on social issues, which fits the state's electorate. Chuck DeVore is a member of the California Assembly and the least known but most conservative of the three.
"Since November of 2008, there's been a debate within the Republican Party about how to best rebuild itself," said Dan Schnur, a former GOP political consultant who directs the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. "Some people say the party needs to reinforce its conservative principles. Others say you need to combine economic conservatism with social moderation. Others say reach out of politics entirely to private sector and job creators. The Republican primary is an almost perfect distillation of the three roads back for the national party."
The most recent poll, released over the weekend by the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and the Los Angeles Times, showed Fiorina leading the primary field with 38 percent. Campbell was second at 23 percent and Devore third at 16 percent. However, in general election matchups, Campbell was beating Boxer 45 to 38 percent and the incumbent was topping Fiorina 44 to 38 percent.
Campbell's latest Web video uses the poll to stress his electability. "I can beat Senator Barbara Boxer, and none of my opponents can," he says in the video. Asked in an interview why, he said, "Because I'm the social moderate."
Those moderate views could frustrate Campbell's hopes of winning over a conservative electorate in the primary. But Campbell says this year is different. "With so many people focusing on unemployment [and] being out of work, the typical areas that divide Republicans do not."
Fiorina, who opposes abortion and gay marriage, supports gun rights and has the endorsement of Sarah Palin, argued in an interview that her conservative views on social issues would not doom her candidacy if she becomes the nominee for the same reason Campbell says his views will not hurt him in the primary.
"I think it can be different this time because the number one issue on Californians' mind is jobs," she said. "The number two issue on Californians' minds is out-of-control government spending. And that's true whether they're Democrats or independents or Republicans. And I think this time is different because Californians are seeing what is happening in California."
DeVore is a candidate who can rouse tea party audiences, as he did last week when he appeared at the same forum as Fiorina. He is conservative on economic and social issues and has accused Fiorina of running away from positions she took in the past, particularly when she was a major surrogate for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the 2008 presidential campaign.
Acknowledging his disappointment over Palin's support for Fiorina, he said his fundraising had spiked after that endorsement, which created uproar among some conservative activists. "She may have gotten Sarah Palin," he said. "I think I got the heart and soul of the volunteer conservative movement in the state."
Some strategists see the Palin endorsement as a problem for Fiorina if she wins the primary. "Barbara Boxer is an extremely effective campaigner," said a GOP strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the race candidly. "You can't run as a Sarah Palin Republican [in California]."
Ken Khachigian, a veteran GOP strategist who is advising Fiorina, said he believes she can win in November even though no Republican who opposes abortion rights has won a Senate, gubernatorial or presidential race in the state in two decades.
"There's going to be a lot more focus on Boxer's record and on the issues that are very difficult for the Democrats this year," he said.
Fiornia also knows that her stormy tenure at HP — she was eventually fired by the board of directors — will be an issue if she ends up challenging Boxer. "The Boxer case against Fiorina will be: I outsourced jobs. I laid people off. That will be her case," Fiorina said. But she said she welcomed such a campaign. "I'll run on my record all day long."