WASHINGTON — With new clout on Capitol Hill and nearly $4 million in her campaign bank, California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer says she's ready for whatever Republicans throw her way.
"If I have an opponent that's slashing and burning me, I fight back, because I always fight back," said Boxer, who's gearing up to run for a fourth term. "My name is Boxer, but I'm not a punching bag."
At 68, California's junior senator is feisty as ever and at the pinnacle of her political power -- and she has no plans to give it up. Her next two years will be intensely busy. She's one of the most aggressive fundraisers among the 34 senators whose terms expire in 2010. And she's preparing for a high-profile role in the new Congress, where she intends to lead the fight against global warming.
As she looks ahead, Boxer's life in Washington has taken a dramatic turn. After spending the first 14 years of her Senate career as a backbencher with a reputation for talking more than legislating, she has emerged as an unlikely power broker and the only Democrat to lead two influential committees, the Senate's environmental and ethics panels.
Republicans would like nothing more than to knock off Boxer, who ranks as one of the Senate's most liberal members.
"California Republicans view Barbara Boxer the way that national Republicans view Hillary Clinton," said Thad Kousser, associate professor of political science at the University of California-San Diego. "To many hardcore California Republicans, she is the political equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard. ... This is the Senate seat that they always think is winnable, but they can never beat her."
Boxer got her start in politics in 1976, when she was elected to the Marin County Board of Supervisors. Six years later, she won a House seat and served 10 years before running for the Senate in 1992. She defeated Bruce Herschensohn, a conservative Los Angeles media commentator who survived a primary against Rep. Tom Campbell and singer Sonny Bono.
Political observers say Boxer has been lucky, never having to face a top-tier candidate. Now she's gunning hard to keep her seat, mindful that raising lots of money is a good way to play defense.
"You can't beat somebody with nobody. ... And one of the things Boxer has figured out is it's a great disincentive for challengers if they know they're already starting $4 million behind," said Jennifer Duffy, Senate analyst with the Cook Political Report.
Cook, one of the leading political prognosticators in Washington, predicts easy sailing for Boxer, with the California race going "likely Democratic." But Duffy estimated that Boxer will need to raise $30 million to win, and she's watching one potential opponent who could change everything: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger: "If he gets in, that'd be a great race." If he doesn't, Duffy said, "There's not a great Republican bench in California."
Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll, said that any Republican hoping to oust Boxer starts at a big disadvantage, because it's so costly to build a statewide image. In the last Field Poll, released in June, Boxer had a 48 percent approval rating. She has always had lower ratings than Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the state's senior senator, party because she's more liberal and has a more partisan image.
Boxer also has plenty of big-name friends. Former Vice President Al Gore attended one of her fundraisers. And last year, a junior senator named Barack Obama showed up at a San Francisco event, where he called Boxer "a fire, a meteor, a charmer and a cutie."
Boxer said she has developed a close relationship with the president-elect, even though she was skeptical that he could get elected to the Senate in 2004. She recalled a conversation with lllinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, who predicted that Obama would win.
"'I said, 'How can he possibly win with that name? People are going to confuse him -- Osama, Obama,'" Boxer recalled.
And she told the story of when Obama pulled her aside outside the Senate chamber one day to say he was pondering a run for president. She told him he could never beat Hillary Clinton.
"Shows you what I know," said Boxer. She said she couldn't decide whether to support Clinton or Obama during the 2008 primaries. "She's like a sister, and he's like a son. I just couldn't choose."
After battling President George W. Bush on a host of environmental issues, Boxer says the difference between Bush and Obama could not be more stark. She cited Obama's remarks earlier this month, when he said that "few challenges facing America and the world are more urgent" than global warming.
At a recent standing-room-only news conference, Boxer said that Obama's words were "music to my ears." Nothing short of "a sea change," she said, has struck Washington.
"We are being challenged to do this legislation where before we were told, 'Don't you dare do this legislation,'" Boxer said.
Boxer has a long wish list. She wants the new Congress to raise the profile of the Environmental Protection Agency by making its head a member of Obama's cabinet, saying morale at the agency "has been driven down to the ground." She's confident that Obama, unlike Bush, will back California's request for a waiver that would allow the state to act on its own to curb global warming. She remains opposed to offshore drilling and is hopeful that Congress will reinstate a ban against it next year. But her main job will be to argue the case that fighting global warming would be good for the economy and create millions of "green jobs."
Looking back, Boxer said, one of the hardest parts of joining the Senate was waiting "to get your wings." But in an institution that rewards longevity, she has steadily moved up the ladder, and next year will be the 19th most senior Democratic senator. (Feinstein will rank 17th.) Boxer has been patient, noting that inexperienced senators must first be students before they can think about being teachers.
"If you really want to get your arms around an issue and be a leader in the Senate, it takes time," said Boxer, adding: "I want to stay in the Senate and I want to work with this president. I've been fighting for change all of my life. We're on the doorstep of getting it."
Kousser said Boxer is enjoying both the fruits of seniority and being in the majority. And he said her views have not changed.
"The country's come a lot closer to Barbara Boxer on her signature issue, the environment and global warming especially," Kousser said. "She was ahead of public opinion on this but it's caught up with her to the point that Arnold Schwarzenegger resurrected his career in California politics in part by backing a global warming bill. ... So her positions are now the mainstream."
Duffy said there's one potential downside: Boxer's work on global warming could become "a double-edged sword" and give her opponents political ammunition, especially if Congress passes a tough bill that Republicans oppose and is perceived as being too onerous to industry.
For now, Capitol Hill's environmental sheriff is clearly relishing her role. Boxer said she is often asked if she wants to run for governor and that her answer is no, because she's right where she has always wanted to be.
"My dream was to get the gavel, and I never thought I would, just because there were so many people in front of me when I started," Boxer said. "But it's all about fate in many ways."
Boxer wasted no time in laying down the law. She invited Gore to one of her first committee hearings. And when her predecessor and longtime nemesis, Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Inhofe, asked the former vice president to answer his questions in writing, Boxer would have none of it.
"You're not making the rules," she told a surprised Inhofe, holding up the gavel. "You used to. ... Elections have consequences, so I make the rules."