Her name isn't on nearly as many bills as her fingerprints are, Gerston said. "For the most part, she's a behind-the-scenes kind of player who tries to bring sides together and often does so," he said.
But Emken contends Feinstein lacks the people skills to be the people's senator. She rarely meets with constituents, holds few news conferences and only recently had a staffer start tweeting for her, Emken said.
"Feinstein doesn't interact with the people at all, and I think it breeds cynicism," she said.
Contra Costa County GOP chairwoman Becky Kolberg, of San Ramon, said what she admires most about Emken is "her energy, her doggedness in approaching this, her optimism" -- especially considering that Fiorina, a better-known and better-funded Republican, was unable to pick off a less popular Democratic incumbent senator, Barbara Boxer, just two years ago.
"The odds in California certainly are against us; we've seen our registration eaten away gradually," but having an Energizer-bunnylike candidate such as Emken helps buoy Republican campaign volunteers and energize voters, Kolberg said.
Emken said being an incumbent and good fundraiser doesn't mean you're the best for the job.
She noted that while working for autism nonprofits, she shepherded bills through Congress in 2000 and 2006 that focused federal attention and resources on researching, detecting and treating the disorder.
Emken faults Feinstein for letting the 2009 stimulus package pass with so little earmarked for infrastructure -- particularly for California's struggling water system -- yet pushing to expedite the state's high-speed rail project, starting with a stretch in a remote area of the Central Valley.
"I just don't get it," Emken said. "You know what they want in the Central Valley? They want water.
"I have a vast legislative knowledge, I've been a student of the process for 15 years," Emken said. "What has Dianne Feinstein done? ... I'll put my legislative background up against hers any day."
In a phone interview last week, Feinstein said one of her proudest accomplishments this year was legislation requiring the government to issue stringent fuel economy standards for cars.
"By 2020, the mileage will be 50 miles per gallon because of that bill," she said. "It's a huge saving of oil, a huge saving of funds for taxpayers and, of course, a reduction of pollution in the air."
She said she's also proud of her Intelligence Committee chairmanship: Since 2009 she has built bipartisan support for budget bills and investigations of controversial interrogation techniques and drone warfare.
Emken criticizes Feinstein for refusing to debate her. "It's part of the process, and the electorate is due a discussion about the issues facing the country," she said.
Feinstein replied that she has debated many competitors in the past, but this year, "I've achieved a position in this state where there's no one running against me with any background in the area.
"My opponent has virtually no campaign; her whole campaign has essentially been sticking her finger in my eye in one way or another," she said, adding she won't give Emken's "right-wing Republican views" a megaphone if Emken can't find one herself.
"I just don't see a plus in doing" that, Feinstein said.
Josh Richman covers politics.
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