California's Most Potent Words: Abortion and Palin

What Women Really Think
Aug. 31 2010 1:39 PM

California's Most Potent Words: Abortion and Palin

With recent polls showing  a dead heat between California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer and Republican nominee Carly Fiorina, Luisita Lopez Torregrosa in the IHT predicts the results "will most rigidly test who holds sway: Sarah Palin or Emily’s List." And indeed, even as Boxer and Fiorina discuss more immediately pressing issues like jobs, two significant themes in the race thus far have been the hot-button terms abortion and Sarah Palin , not necessarily in that order. It will be interesting to count how many times those words come up during their first debate tomorrow.

The presence of the abortion issue in this race may speak to how close it is. Boxer, known for her strong pro-choice stance, has charged that Fiorina’s support for overturning Roe v. Wade is " out of touch with Californians ," a statement that polls suggest is true . More recently, Boxer’s campaign released a Web ad saying, "Fiorina would make abortion a crime." NRO ’s Kathryn Jean Lopez suggested that the ad’s use of the "scarlet A-word" instead of a euphemism was " rhetorically unusual " and quoted the forever-quotable political analyst Larry Sabato: "I think Boxer fully realizes what a close race she is in." The Web ad also prompted a San Francisco Chronicle blog to wonder whether "the fact that Boxer is dropping the abortion card BEFORE the Labor Day sprint begins" might mean that polls are causing desperation in Boxer’s camp. (Abortion has also come up in the context of attacks on Boxer-George Will has written two columns this summer criticizing the senator's support for partial-birth abortion, suggesting that " it is theoretically impossible to fashion an abortion position significantly more extreme than Boxer’s .")


And now for that other ever-popular phrase, Sarah Palin . If you squinted, you might think Boxer were running against the former Alaska governor, who endorsed Fiorina, rather than the former Hewlett-Packard CEO herself. As this Chronicle piece points out , in an atmosphere in which "candidates are finding it simpler to say what they won't do instead of what they will," the going-negative strategy has even carried over into how often the candidates say their opponents’ names. Fiorina says "Barbara Boxer" frequently, trying to tap into voter anger with the three-term incumbent, while Boxer avoids saying Fiorina’s name.

Guess what name you hear instead of Fiorina’s. One Boxer campaign ad shows Palin praising Fiorina; in another ad by an independent group, Fiorina’s face morphs into Palin’s . Most recently, another independent ad shows Fiorina and Palin in side-by-side clips , using almost identical language about immigration policy. Just how much do California voters despise Sarah Palin? If this trend continues, we may find out.

An aside, while we’re on the topic of controversial names: There’s another one that’s been uttered a lot recently in races across the country. Politico points out the toxicity of Nancy Pelosi , who’s long been a predictable target for Republicans and is now being attacked by members of her own party. "Three vulnerable Democrats from conservative-oriented districts are already running TV ads spotlighting their defiance of Pelosi," Politico points out.

And then there’s the recent case of Rep. Bobby Bright, a Blue Dog Democrat from a conservative district in Alabama. When asked whether he would again support Pelosi in a run for speaker, Bright offered a host of reasons why the issue might never come up. The last was paraphrased by a reporter present as, " Heck, she might even get sick and die ." The line prompted laughter from his audience.

Libby Copeland is a writer in New York and a regular Slate contributor. She was previously a Washington Post reporter and editor for 11 years. She can be reached at


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