Five for Fighting Feinstein

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It is beginning to look like no one will challenge U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein when she runs for re-election next year. This isn't surprising: Feinstein is a formidable politician with a long list of accomplishments and center-left positioning that fits her state. And the rising generation of California politicians is a notoriously cautious lot grown accustomed to waiting for term limits to clear out opponents. None of the potential candidates have shown the ability or daring to slay a giant.

But Feinstein is also 78 years old; she'll be 79 on Election Day, an age at which retirement may be the wisest course (just look at 84-year-old Joe Paterno). And California, the state Feinstein represents, isn't doing well -- either as an economic or budget measure. There's a strong argument that for all of Feinstein's past work, the state might benefit from new representation in Washington.

But who should take her on? The whispers have been about a few deeply conservative Republicans like Congressman Devin Nunes. The trouble there: this state is unlikely to elect right wingers to the U.S. Senate.

A successful Feinstein challenge would have to come from within the Democratic Party -- or from the dwindling ranks of moderate Republicans. Since Feinstein is unlikely to face a real challenge, we conjure five imaginary challenges from people who could and probably should take Feinstein on -- but won't.

5. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa: He's termed out in 2013. And even his critics note that he has a serious, substantive Washington agenda -- highlighted by his 30-10 plan to seek the federal government's help in speeding the building of a new transportation system for Los Angeles. It's not impossible to see a Villaraigosa kamikaze run at Feinstein; he has seemed to revel in taking on uphill fights against teachers' unions and Prop 13. And he's not getting any younger -- he'll be 59 in January.

4. California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom: Newsom and Feinstein are said to be close, and a Newsom challenge to Feinstein is unthinkable given his history of deferring to elders. This is the guy who backed away from running against Jerry Brown. But Newsom, whatever you think of him personally, has a big agenda and could go hard at Feinstein from the left, giving Democratic voters a real choice. And who better to take on a former mayor of San Francisco than another former mayor of San Francisco?

3. Congressman David Dreier: The only Republican on this list, Dreier is a throwback to a time when conservatives were conservative, not radicals who wanted to tear down institutions. Dreier has long, strong relationships with leaders of both parties around the state. And he probably has little future in the House of Representatives, given that redistricting left him with no clear path to re-election. Dreier could go out with a U.S. Senate run that emphasizes his experience, skills as a problem solver -- and the fact that California would do well to have one Republican senator in a Washington where Republicans have such clout.

2. Assemblyman Mike Gatto: Yes, this would be a giant leap. At 37, Gatto is one of the Assembly's youngest members -- and also one of its most intellectually courageous. This year, he pushed the envelope by sponsoring bold constitutional reform and helped lead a push on health insurance regulation. And he withstood withering criticism after he spoke up against State Controller John Chiang when the controller, tyrannically, stopped paying legislators because he didn't like their budget. That instinct to call B.S. and challenge received wisdom would make a Gatto candidacy, at the very least, a vehicle for broadening the conversation about what's wrong in California. And the generational contrast -- Gatto is less than half Feinstein's age -- would be stark.

1. Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez: The Orange County Democrat has been looking to run statewide. But it's a big jump from Congress, since Californians don't know the names of the people who represent them in Congress. One way to build name recognition quickly would be to launch a primary challenge against a giant: Feinstein. Sanchez has the right profile -- a Latina Southern Californian -- to best Feinstein. And as a former Republican, Sanchez might be able to attack Feinstein both from the right (as not doing enough for business) while courting leftists angry with Feinstein's more moderate stands.

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