Susan Estrich: 'Niceness' is a deciding factor in California race

“Ladies slug it out” was the headline on Thursday's Drudge Report. And it is as good a summary as any of what happened Wednesday night when incumbent California Sen. Barbara Boxer met her challenger, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, in their first debate.

By all measures, Boxer should be vulnerable. She is a liberal. No denying it. She wouldn't think of it.

She is an incumbent, a strong supporter of an increasingly unpopular president, a vigorous opponent of the Iraq war, a very capital “D” Democrat in a year when Democrats are in trouble, even in California.

Even optimistic tried-and-true Democrats are worried about the California governor's race — notwithstanding former Gov. (and now candidate) Jerry Brown's legendary skills and genius as a political wizard, the big registration advantage, the problematic poll numbers of the current Republican governor and the vulnerabilities of former eBay CEO and current gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman.

When I talk to Washington insiders, they scoff when I say I think Boxer is in better shape than Brown. That shouldn't be, not in an anti-Washington, anti-incumbent election.

But if you think I'm wrong, catch a few minutes of Wednesday night's debate.

Boxer repeatedly attacked Fiorina for cutting jobs at HP and shipping them to China and India. She punched hard at Fiorina's putting “Made in China” and “Made in India” labels on her products and touting that as success.

Not fair, retorted Fiorina; Boxer shouldn't be attacking HP.

“She's running on her record as the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, so what she did there counts,” Boxer said. “And I'm going to keep on telling the truth about it.”

Who ever said women couldn't throw punches? Ladies?

Despite the climate, Boxer has certain advantages over Fiorina that Brown does not have over Whitman. The first is money. Fiorina and Whitman are both former CEOs, but only one is a billionaire. That would be Whitman. She built eBay. Fiorina got ousted from HP. Whitman left with a bundle.

Fiorina is wealthy — but not wealthy enough to fund a campaign in California. Right now, Boxer holds a definite edge in fundraising.

Then there are the issues. Fiorina had a tougher primary fight, which means she had to move further to the right before she could try to find her way back to the center. Only one-third of the registered voters in California are Republicans. Among them, the most conservative vote in primaries.

The reason “moderate” Republicans such as Dick Riordan (the former Los Angeles mayor who could have won a general election for governor of California but couldn't win the Republican primary) and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (who only won election because it was an “open” recall) have successfully pushed for open primaries is because the primary effect on Republicans is to make them unelectable in November.

Fiorina, after a tough primary, finds herself running as an anti-abortion, overrule Roe v. Wade, drill-baby-drill Republican. Not what anyone would call an ideal position.

But what may count for most in the end is what I call the human factor. I never judge people by how they treat people with power: Everybody treats people with power well, unless they have even more power.

No, it's how they treat the people beneath them, e.g., the gals who do their makeup before they go charm the anchors interviewing them on live television. No one sees more of candidates this time of year than makeup artists, and while the male candidates often race in and out, no woman over 50 goes on television without a serious session with foundation and powder.

So I've been doing my own poll. In a year in which an unprecedented number of women are running for office, you get a very good sample size. And after 20 years in television, I know a lot of makeup artists, including the freelancers at the satellite studios where we all end up.

The issue is not ideology; it's niceness. Meg Whitman does just fine. So, by the way, do both Barbara Boxer and Sarah Palin.

But Carly Fiorina? Not so much.

Examiner columnist Susan Estrich is nationally syndicated by Creator Syndicate.

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