WASHINGTON — They may not agree on much, but Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer and her GOP rival, former businesswoman Carly Fiorina, are eagerly airing the federal stimulus program in this fall's red-hot Senate campaign.
Both have been using human examples to argue their case.
For Boxer, who says the stimulus spending has been a success, it's Sean Stevens, a 36-year-old electrician from Elverta. He says he wouldn't be working at an expansion project at Sacramento International Airport if Congress hadn't approved its $787 billion stimulus package last year.
"I'd be unemployed, like many of my fellow electricians," said Stevens.
For Fiorina, who says the stimulus program has been a flop, it's a man identified only as Roger. He appears in one of her TV ads released this week.
"It isn't working for me," he says.
Boxer is pointing to the stimulus program to argue she has been busy on Capitol Hill working to create jobs in California. Fiorina is using the stimulus program to argue that congressional spending is out of control and has done nothing to reduce the ranks of the jobless.
It mirrors a debate taking place across the country.
Republicans, in particular, have seized on the issue, casting the stimulus as a symbol of everything that's wrong with Washington.
In a recent GOP radio address, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, called it "the stimulus package that failed to stimulate." House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio called it a failed "spending spree that will force our kids and grandkids to pick up the tab for decades."
The White House says the stimulus has already saved or created more than 3 million jobs. At a briefing earlier this month, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the administration regards the stimulus as a success.
"It's created jobs," he said. "It's created economic growth. It has turned our economy from one close to slipping into the brink of another Great Depression into one that is moving in the right direction."
Jennifer Duffy, Senate editor with the Washington-based Cook Political Report, said debate over the stimulus program seems to be more intense in California. She said the stimulus is mentioned in other Senate races but has not emerged as a centerpiece issue.
"California's sort of unique in the stimulus' day-to-day appearance, mostly because not everybody's embracing it the way Boxer has," she said.
Boxer, who is seeking a fourth term, said there are thousands of Californians just like Stevens, men and women who are collecting paychecks because of Congress' spending. She said Democrats responded to "a bleeding" economy that was losing 700,000 jobs per month.
By her count, the U.S. would have lost an additional 8 million jobs if Congress hadn't passed the stimulus package, adding that it has saved or created at least 150,000 jobs in California.
When the federal government reported last week that the national economy had shed another 95,000 jobs in September, Fiorina offered a few numbers of her own.
Since Congress passed the stimulus package, she said, the nation has lost more than 3.3 million jobs and seen 17 consecutive months of unemployment above 9 percent.
Accusing Boxer of being a spendthrift, Fiorina noted in the most recent Senate debate that the national debt has increased from $10.7 trillion to $13 trillion in less than two years. And, she said, California's unemployment rate has risen from 10.2 percent to 12.4 percent since the stimulus was passed.
Stevens said he is happy that Congress passed the stimulus, and he took issue with Fiorina's assertion that it's a failure. "I've heard that she's acting as if it's a hoax, as if these jobs aren't real," he said. "It's pretty real to me."
But Jack Pitney, professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College, said the debate is likely to help Fiorina more than Boxer, because most Californians haven't experienced any stimulus benefits.
"I think Californians, like Americans in general, have gotten pretty jaded about the stimulus," Pitney said. "They just don't see the kind of results that they were hoping for. I think the average voter is likely to believe the pessimistic story rather than the optimistic one right now."