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Barbara Boxer.JPGCarly Fiorina California Senate Race(2).JPGSt. Mary's College, in the bucolic suburbs of Contra Costa County, is the site of tonight's debate between Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer and Republican challenger Carly Fiorina - a duel that could conceivably help determine control of the U.S. Senate.

Demonstrators for and against the two women are parading outside the campus as guards carefully screen who is admitted. And the debate, possibly the only face-to-face clash between the two, is getting a lot of media attention -- but not nearly as much as the college apparently thought it would.

St. Mary's created a media center in a campus auditorium and set up chairs for more than a hundred journalists, with Wi-Fi Internet service and even, quaintly, 10 landline phones. But in this era of diminished news resources, only about a dozen print journalists, plus a phalanx of TV crews, are covering the debate.

While they wait for the debate to begin, the newsies are renewing acquaintanceships, munching on fruit and oatmeal cookies, kibitzing with the campaign types who are poised to spin the story and hoping, perhaps against hope, that the debate will generate some real news, not merely recitations of pre-digested slogans.

Polls indicate that the two are more or less tied, although one recent poll shows Fiorina with an edge. If she's still viable as the campaign begins in earnest after Labor Day, the national GOP campaign groups that normally shun California because of its high campaign costs may jump in.

Boxer knows that she's in a real battle for a fourth term, not only because Fiorina is a more viable opponent than the Republicans she's faced in the past, but because this is looking like a strong GOP year across the nation and she's a few ticks to the left of the California political mainstream.

Fiorina is expected to be on the attack tonight, trying to tie Boxer to runaway spending in Washington and depicting her as an out-of-touch liberal, But Boxer will probably counter with attacks on Fiorina's career as the boss at Hewlettt-Packard and her conservative stands on such issues as abortion.

If the election remains close, middle-of-the-road and independent voters will be decisive and both will be playing to that audience.


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