California Senate race heats up as Tom Campbell surges ahead in polls

Just like that, the Republican Senate primary in California has a new front-runner, and another traditionally Democratic seat is in play.

Tom Campbell
, the 57-year-old former congressman who had been running for governor, ejected less than two weeks ago out of that high-spending contest and parachuted into the Senate race, which already had two serious Republican candidates, in Carly Fiorina and Chuck Devore.

In the last week, Campbell has come out ahead of both Fiorina and Devore. He also appears to be within striking distance (down by four points in two of three head-to-head polls) of the three-term Democratic incumbent, Sen. Barbara Boxer.

Especially in the wake of the loss of Ted Kennedy’s seat in Massachusetts, the Boxer campaign knows it has a fight on its hands.

“We’ve been preparing for a tough race given the tough economic climate and the fact that we’re running in an off year,” said Boxer campaign spokeswoman Rose Kapolczynski. “But Massachusetts is just another reminder that you can’t take anything for granted.”

Boxer led Campbell 45 percent to 41 percent in a PPIC poll released Thursday. Campbell, in turn, led Fiorina and Devore with 27 percent to their 16 percent and 8 percent, respectively. A Field poll released last week showed Campbell with a 30 to 25 lead over Fiorina, with Devore receiving only six percent.

Campbell, who dropped out of the governor’s race in large part because he was being overwhelmingly outspent by Ebay founder Meg Whitman and state insurance commissioner Steve Poizner, has already begun to behave as the front-runner in the Senate race.

In an interview, Campbell eschewed criticism, or much comment at all, about his primary opponents, and focused his fire on Boxer, who he said has been “just awful” on the issue he says will matter most to voters: spending.

Boxer, he said, “has been able to beat her Republican opponents [in the past] by focusing on social issues.”

“She won’t be able to do that with me. The focus I bring is economics and her record there is terrible,” Campbell said.

He touts ratings from groups such as the National Taxpayers Union, which gave him very high marks throughout his congressional career, spanning two congressional districts through most of the 1990s. He contrasts that with Boxer, who he said has been “one of the biggest spenders in the entire Congress her entire career.”

Campbell, a social liberal who supports abortion rights and same-sex marriage, may be vulnerable in the primary with conservative “value voters.” But that is not where Fiorina and Devore are choosing to attack him.

Fiorina, the 55-year-old former Hewlett Packard chief executive, breast cancer survivor and one-time potential vice presidential pick for John McCain, has begun to circulate a memo headlined, “Tom Campbell: No Fiscal Conservative. “ It outlines what she describes as Campbell’s support for numerous tax increases.

Aides to Devore, the 47-year-old state assemblyman who is aligned with the Tea Party movement, say neither Campbell nor Fiorina are fiscal hawks.

“Tom Campbell’s not a conservative. Carly Fiorina’s definitely not a conservative,” said Devore spokesman Josh Trevino. “Tom Campbell, to his credit, is not pretending to be a conservative, except on fiscal matters.”