Ted Lieu

State Sen. Ted Lieu, shown after winning his seat in 2010, won decisive support from Democrats at a pre-endorsement conference, giving him strong odds of winning the California Democratic Party's backing at its upcoming convention. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times / February 15, 2011)

In an early test of candidate strength in the race for a Westside/South Bay congressional seat, state Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) won decisive support from local Democratic activists Sunday.

Lieu took 73% of the vote at a pre-endorsement conference, giving him strong odds of winning the California Democratic Party's backing at its convention next month. Lieu is vying in an already crowded field to replace Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Beverly Hills), who recently announced his retirement.

Former L.A. Controller Wendy Greuel, viewed by many as Lieu's main competition, received seven votes to Lieu's 59. Fourteen delegates voted for "no endorsement."

Greuel and Lieu are the best known of several Democrats who are eyeing the race or have already announced. Because the 33rd Congressional District is strongly Democratic, having the party's endorsement could be critical, not only because of the campaign help it could provide but also because it could sway party loyalists in deciding how to mark their ballots.

The session was part of many "pre-endorsement conferences" Democrats held over the weekend. It covered races in four Assembly, two state Senate and three congressional districts. Only races in which a candidate received at least 50% of the local delegates' votes can be considered for a state party endorsement.

A spokesman for Greuel, who had greeted delegates as they entered a state building in Van Nuys for the meeting, downplayed the vote.

"Obviously, Wendy Greuel is not part of the Sacramento old-boys' network," the spokesman, Sean Clegg, said in a statement. "We expect to appeal at the convention and take the vote to the floor in March."

Denying Lieu the endorsement would be an uphill battle, said Eric Bauman, chairman of the Los Angeles County arm of the party.

"It was an overwhelming victory," Bauman said. "It makes him very likely to be the [state party's] endorsed candidate."

The normally reserved Lieu, whose campaign team had earlier handed out pizza, soda and bottled water in the stuffy conference room, leaped and waved his hands in a "V for victory" salute as the results were announced.

"I am humbled by the outpouring of support by local Democratic activists throughout the congressional district," Lieu said after the meeting.

Waxman's unexpected Jan. 30 announcement that he was stepping down after nearly four decades in Congress touched off a scramble among local politicians, some of whom rapidly shifted their plans for this election year.

Lieu, for example, decided within hours of hearing the news to halt his plans to seek reelection to his state Senate seat and join the congressional race. His change set off a rush among some to get into the Senate contest.

Two independent candidates, bestselling author and spiritual teacher Marianne Williamson and TV producer-director Brent Roske, already were running for Waxman's seat before the longtime congressman dropped out.

Another independent, businessman Bill Bloomfield, who spent some $7.5 million of his personal wealth to challenge Waxman two years ago, has said he is considering another run for the seat.

Filing opens Monday for the June 3 primary races for governor and other statewide offices, Congress and the state Legislature. But many candidates have been raising money and campaigning for weeks or even months.

Because the incumbent is not running, candidates looking to succeed Waxman will have until March 12 to file. In most other races, the deadline is March 7.

jean.merl@latimes.com