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Rebellious Boxer happy to be a lightning rod

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Sen. Barbara Boxer grills Condoleezza Rice during Rice's confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Jan. 19.

Sen. Barbara Boxer grills Condoleezza Rice during Rice’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Jan. 19.

Gerald Herbert, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — A new blog is promoting her for president. NBC's "Saturday Night Live" spoofed her hair and her props. Some senatorial colleagues secretly are urging her to "go, girl, go." And Democratic coffers are filling up with her every volley.

With liberals dusting themselves off after their November setbacks, California's Sen. Barbara Boxer has emerged as the left's new flamethrower.

The only senator to contest the Electoral College results and the lead accuser in the battle over Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's nomination, Boxer unquestionably has angered President Bush. And GOP strategists gleefully have seized upon her as a symbol of blue-state liberalism.

Within her party, Boxer's new star turn gets mixed reviews. To some, her grilling of Rice at confirmation hearings was her finest hour, challenging the nominee's "respect for the truth" in an oration against the war in Iraq that prompted the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to launch a fund-raising appeal in her name.

Web sites call it the Boxer Rebellion.

To others — and many people in Washington, D.C., suspect California's other senator, Democrat Dianne Feinstein, is among them — her lambasting of Rice casts Boxer as an attack dog whose tactics will alienate mainstream voters.

But whatever others think, to those who have watched Boxer's political career over almost 30 years as a Marin County supervisor, a member of Congress and a U.S. senator, the only difference this time is that the whole nation might have been watching. The rest is vintage Boxer, the signature style of her whole career.

"This is just Boxer being Boxer," said David Sandretti, the senator's communications director.

Or, as Bruce Cain, who heads the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley put it: "It's very simple. Boxer looked like Feinstein until the election. Now she's Boxer again."

Boxer marvels at how she suddenly has become the hot Democratic celebrity. She is lionized by her blogger fans as "a true liberal, unlike the weenie-Dems in the Senate and House." She "has the courage of her convictions," one blogger wrote, comparing her favorably to the "conscience of the Senate," the late Paul Wellstone, D-Minn.

"I'm rather amazed at the response," she said in an interview. "I've been this way all my life."

And she was entertained when "Saturday Night Live" parodied her questioning of Rice and her hair, which Boxer, 64, recently frosted so that "if and when the gray starts growing in I don't have to worry." The skit lampooned her use of charts during the Rice hearings by, among other things, placing a miniature volcano on her desk and having it erupt periodically.

"I never laughed so hard," she said. "They nailed the whole debate. It was really a great take off on how I make my case."

There is talk that she might be a dark horse candidate for president (presidentboxer.blogspot.com is promoting the idea), and her Senate staff says 30 bouquets from supporters arrived in her office after she contested the 2004 election results, but Boxer eschews any suggestion of ambition for higher office.

"I would not run for president," she said. "I really like what I'm doing now. People say I'm giving them energy and hope."

She also might be giving Democrats political cover — playing the bad cop to help party leaders like Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., avoid the fate that befell former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., who was defeated after Republicans targeted him for blocking judicial nominations.

Unlike Reid and Daschle, Boxer (like Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York) comes from a solidly blue state where her fervent liberal views are less likely to provoke a backlash.

"I think it's part of a bigger strategy to use someone who is from a pretty blue state to challenge the Senate GOP leadership and the White House at every turn," said Jennifer Duffy, Senate analyst for the Cook Political Report, a political newsletter.

As for Boxer, it appears that not having to run for another six years has freed her to speak her mind."

Not that she's ever been shy about that sort of thing.

When a military watchdog group alerted her to Pentagon misspending, Boxer took to the House floor to expose $7,600 coffeepots and $600 toilet-seat covers. When the Senate Judiciary Committee was weighing the nomination of Clarence Thomas to be a Supreme Court justice, she marched with six other congresswomen to the Senate to hear Anita Hill level charges of sexual harassment against him.

When former Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., was accused of kissing female Senate staffers, she pressured her caucus into voting for hearings, prompting him to resign in 1995.

If Boxer is as pugilistic as her name suggests, her activism too is part of her heritage.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., she ran for co-captain of a cheerleading squad at Brooklyn College. She is of proud of her first electoral victory, even though the basketball team never won a game all season.

Later she experienced her first grass-roots campaign when she organized her apartment house to force the landlord to renovate the lobby. Her feminism too had its roots in Brooklyn where she was, according to the Almanac of American Politics, a victim of sexual harassment by a college professor and later was refused work as a stockbroker.

She moved to Northern California shortly after marrying Stewart Boxer. They were taken with the region while visiting relatives. They couldn't afford the housing prices in San Francisco, so in 1968 they moved to Greenbrae, in Marin County, where they have lived since.

With two kids, and a lawyer husband, she was a Democratic mom in a Republican stronghold. She formed a group with other friends called the Marin Alternative, and they worked against the Vietnam War and a local developer's plans to build a neighborhood in wetlands.

In her first run for Marin County Board of Supervisors in 1972, she lost to a well-established Republican and was told by neighbors that a wife and mom had no place in public office. When she ran again four years later, the women's liberation movement had gained traction, and she beat the incumbent, Peter Arrigoni.

In six years on the Marin County Board, 10 years in Congress and 12 years in the Senate, she has not lost an election — although she's taken some hits along the way.

During the House banking scandal in 1992, when it was disclosed that she had 143 overdrafts from the House Bank, she told the Los Angeles Times that checking account records of lawmakers were none of the public's business.

A few years ago, she contemplated retirement. But that was before 9/11, before the budget deficit ballooned and before national unity frayed. It was before she took to the Senate floor to criticize the Bush administration's handling of terrorism. And it was before House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, faulted her for attacking the president in a time of war.

That did it. She told her staff and her family to prepare for another campaign.

Her electoral success owes something to her ability to mute her rhetoric during campaign season. Stumping for re-election last year, she touted a list of legislative accomplishments, including bills enacted with Republican help. "Nobody in the U.S. Senate can get anything done if they can't work across the aisle," Boxer said.

Now, she is newly emboldened. She told staffers on election night that she would not "be afraid to stand alone."

After seeing Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 911" at a Washington, D.C., premiere studded with Democratic power players, Boxer said she felt guilty for not contesting the results of the 2000 election. Given "the amount of electoral irregularities," in 2004, she said, this time she wanted to stand up against the results—even though Bush won in the key state of Ohio by 118,000 votes.

Mark DiCamillo, director of California's Field Poll, said he thought her current activism owed something to her 2004 electoral tallies. "It's striking to me that Sen. Boxer came out of this election stronger than she's ever been. She's never had a comfortable election before. She won this by 20 (percentage) points—she won 54 percent of men, 60 percent of independents, she carried San Diego County with 52 percent," he said.

"It gives her a little more latitude than ever before."

Boxer has left little doubt that she will try to use her electoral muscle to, as she says, "hold the Bush administration accountable." Recently, she was called for jury duty in Marin County and explained to the judge that she did not have time to serve because she had to prepare for the Rice confirmation hearings.

The week after, she went grocery shopping in Marin, at the same store where she has bought groceries for 38 years, where patrons know to leave her alone. This time, in the produce section, she was approached by several constituents who wanted to thank her, and one who wanted to admonish her.

She takes praise and criticism in stride.

"I've taken lonely votes in my life. I've asked tough questions," she said. "Otherwise, what's the point of being in the world, let alone in the Senate?"

Contributing: Mark Barabak, Faye Fiore, Scott Martelle