Tom Campbell is headed to Panama, undeterred by the fact that other Republicans campaigning in California’s two big political races are wondering what the hell office he plans to run for.

Campbell, who’s in second place in polls of the GOP primary race for governor, in recent days became the focus of widespread speculation that he’s preparing to pull out of that contest to seek the party’s U.S. Senate nomination. After an aide confirmed to the Washington Post that Campbell has been approached by unnamed “Republican officials” about a switch, the candidate didn’t exactly rush to the task of denying the possibility.

Capitol Letters

“I am in the race for governor, and I have nothing to add to that,” he told Capitol Letters. The courtly Campbell politely refused to respond to follow-up questions about the matter, deflecting all other inquiries to a wide-ranging discussion of his holiday vacation, during which he and his bride plan to take intensive Spanish lessons in Panama.

“I’m going to be able to do Cervantes,” the notoriously straight-laced former congressman assured a reporter.

Despite his reluctance to address the speculation, a possible Campbell decision to abandon his quixotic bid for governor remains Topic A among California political junkies and other hacks. Such a move would reshape the political landscape of 2010, shaking up not only the race to succeed Arnold Schwarzenegger, but also the GOP campaign for the right to challenge Democratic incumbent Senator Barbara Boxer.

The moderate Campbell is a two-decade fixture in Republican politics who twice before sought a Senate seat. In 1992, he lost the primary to conservative TV commentator Bruce Herschensohn; in 2000, he was nominated, only to be skunked by Senator Dianne Feinstein in the general. Six months before the 2010 primary, his current second-place standing in the contest for governor owes more to name identification from those efforts than to current political and organizational strength.

Frontrunner Meg Whitman, the billionaire former CEO of eBay, already has poured $20 million of her own money into the governor’s race, while Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, another Silicon Valley success story, announced this week he will write a $15-million check from his personal fortune to jumpstart his third-place candidacy. In a state where expensive TV advertising is the most crucial factor in high-profile statewide campaigns, it is difficult to see a pathway to victory for Campbell, despite his long public policy and political record.

Switching to the Senate race would pose another, less daunting financial challenge for Campbell in facing an independently wealthy rival.

The potential impact of a Campbell withdrawal is unclear. Although his moderate political views are closer to Whitman’s than Poizner-who has positioned himself to the right with a sweeping plan for tax and spending cuts-the insurance commissioner would likely be helped most, at least in the short term. Any new element of uncertainty would help disrupt the perception of inevitability that Whitman has slowly but steadily been building.

Switching to the Senate race would pose another, less daunting financial challenge for Campbell in facing an independently wealthy rival. Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, only recently declared her candidacy, but quickly gained the support of Senate Republican leaders and other members of the GOP establishment as the party’s best chance of unseating the liberal Boxer.

Fiorina faces opposition from Orange County Assemblymember Chuck DeVore. Although little known statewide, DeVore is a favorite of the party’s right wing, which dominates the primary electorate, and of the so-called Tea Party movement, the loosely organized alliance of populist conservatives who have coalesced around a platform of opposition to the federal stimulus bill, health-care reform, and soaring budget deficits, among other issues.

The Fiorina-DeVore matchup is intriguing because it mirrors an internal conflict among Republicans across the country, which surfaced in a recent special election for a House seat in New York. There, Tea Party types forced the moderate Republican nominee out of the race in favor of a third-party conservative. That their effort had the unintended consequence of letting a Democrat win a district long held by the GOP did not faze conservatives in their push for ideological purity, as the movement is now backing antiestablishment candidates in high-profile Republican races in Florida and Texas.

Campbell’s entry into the Senate race would likely benefit DeVore, by pulling moderate votes from Fiorina, although it’s far too early to predict the impact with any precision. Meanwhile, the candidate himself offered few hints about which way he is leaning.

“If they offer me the presidency,” he said, preparing to embark to the land of Manuel Noriega, “maybe I won’t come back.”


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