Carter-Robinson Primary Fight: Dornan the Winner?

Times Political Writer

Outside by the pool, David O. Carter climbed atop a small redwood table so that he could be seen above the cocktail party crowd.

For the next half-hour, the 41-year-old Superior Court judge spoke of his goals, of his desire to be both a good congressman and a good father, of his pledge as a former Marine Corps lieutenant to be a "true patriot" but still look carefully at any U. S. involvement in Central America, of his intent to run a personal, grass-roots campaign.

Three days earlier, five-term Assemblyman Richard Robinson (D-Garden Grove) had declared that he was the best candidate to defeat conservative Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) and so was running for Dornan's 38th Congressional District seat in 1986.

But Carter, a lesser-known conservative Democrat, was continuing his own exploratory campaign for Dornan's seat.

To be sure, he was still testing the waters. "I have not declared. I am not a candidate," Carter told the 100 people who gathered last Tuesday night at the Garden Grove home of longtime Democratic activist Woodrow W. Butterfield.

But he vowed: "If we continue in this vein, I will declare my candidacy in January."

Months ago, Democrats in Orange County and Washington targeted Dornan, an outspoken folk hero of Republican conservatism, for defeat next November. Some--Orange County Democratic Central Committee Chairman Bruce W. Sumner among them--had decided more than a year ago that Carter, a former homicide prosecutor, was just the man to take on the feisty Dornan.

But comments by Robinson and Carter lately have indicated that the Democratic primary for the 38th will be a contest.

To Dornan, that is good news. "With a contested primary, it's a lost cause" for the Democrats, he chuckled Thursday.

Many Democrats are worried that Dornan may be right.

The pro-Carter faction, led by developers David Stein and Michael Ray and other south county Democrats, would like Robinson to drop out of the race and run for something else. But Robinson suggested that Carter--who lives in Laguna Beach but has promised to move into the 38th District if he runs--"would be more comfortable in the south county" and should stay there.

Dornan, meanwhile, said he is enjoying watching Robinson tell off "the limousine liberals from Newport Beach." He said that he would have an easier fight against an unknown like Carter but would enjoy a race against Robinson, and that after the election, "he's the kind of candidate I wouldn't mind going by and saying 'good fight' to--especially if I win."

If neither Carter nor Robinson backs out, the results could be expensive for the Democrats.

'Spend All Our Money'

"I'm hoping we don't spend all our money trying to kill each other in the primary," said Jim Wisley, executive director of the Southern California Democratic Party. "The one seat (in Orange County) the Democrats have a chance at--they're going to go kill themselves."

Even before there was talk of a contested primary, some congressional Democrats estimated that they need more than $1 million to challenge Dornan effectively. But with a contested primary, the figures are expected to go considerably higher.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), one of the Washington power brokers whom both Carter and Robinson consulted about running against Dornan, said either man would make "a very good candidate."

But if both were to run, "I think it would be a real waste," Waxman said. "They've got to keep their resources for November. It's a very winnable district for November."

'I Think That's Dumb'

Carol Casperson, finance director for Independent Action, a Virginia-based political action group with ties to the Democrats and which just sent out an anti-Dornan fund-raising letter, was disturbed that both Carter and Robinson may be running. "I think that's dumb, frankly," she said.

Meanwhile, Ray, the Carter backer who is also chairman of the Democratic Foundation of Orange County, said there might be a few benefits from a contested primary--principally name identification for Carter.

Also, "it'll create an organization that will prove that he can win a race," Ray said. "He'll learn how to live with the gloves off. It'll create a fighting machine to get ready for the mud that we know Dornan is going to sling in the fall."

But Richard J. O'Neill, an Orange County rancher and restaurant owner who has been active in Democratic politics for decades, is not convinced: "Some people say it's a good thing--whoever wins comes out stronger. I don't quite see it that way if they come out with no funds or no resources."

'A Healthy Process'

In a recent interview, Carter said he was surprised that Robinson had entered the race. But he called a primary battle "a healthy process. . . . A primary fight never hurts anybody. And somebody emerges a leading candidate."

It was a quiet weekday afternoon recently and the calendar in Carter's court was clear. So--making sure that any talk of politics took place far from his chambers--Carter had taken a break from court business, slung the jacket of his gray twill suit over his shoulder and walked to a nearby deli to discuss the race.

Despite the concern about a contested primary, Carter said his final decision to run would hinge on three factors--whether being a congressman would adversely affect his relationship with his four children, whether he had sufficient funds for the campaign and whether he had community support.

And if he does run, Carter promised, he will prove the existence of that community support. He vowed to "take to the streets" to secure 3,000 signatures on a candidacy petition and create a network of supporters in the process. If he can secure the 3,000 signatures, he would not have to pay the required $749 filing fee.

Exploratory Panel Formed

"None of us are interested in taking a kamikaze run," he had told the crowd Tuesday night. His decision on running will be "a thoughtful process. . . . For right now, let's take it quietly and easily--as a steady ship goes to port."

For now, his campaign is a tentative one, Carter said, with 10 to 15 people on an exploratory committee. And as long as he continues as a judge, Carter said, he prefers not to discuss campaign finances or his position on such issues as the death penalty and defense spending.

Besides, Carter was hoping that these next two weeks would be quiet ones--a time to spend the Christmas holiday with his children.

"If we get into the fight, it's going to last for a long time," he said. "So maybe this is the last chance I have to enjoy myself."

He paused, reflecting. "As a kid in combat (in Vietnam) there was almost a certain calm before battle. It's nothing you can describe. It's just a very quiet time before all hell broke loose."

And this, the eve of a possible first venture into partisan politics, might be a similar time, the judge suggested.

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