With just days to go in their tightly fought and closely watched congressional race, Rep. Robert Lagomarsino and state Sen. Gary K. Hart both say they are bracing for last-minute political attacks.
Their heated battle, into which the widely popular candidates have each pumped more than $1 million, already has produced charges and countercharges that have been branded as sleazy by both camps.
Lagomarsino (R-Ventura), who is fighting the toughest race of his 14-year congressional career, has sought to portray his challenger as a liberal extremist who is soft on crime, drugs and national defense. One of his recent brochures depicts Hart as a puppet controlled by several Los Angeles-area Democratic congressmen.
Hart (D-Santa Barbara), who has served 14 years in Sacramento, has tried to paint the GOP incumbent as as ineffectual congressman who is insensitive to educational and environmental concerns. A Hart ad shows Lagomarsino as a cartoon character whose flexing biceps is in the shape of an oil-drilling rig.
Their race to represent Santa Barbara County and about half of Ventura County has been described by some analysts as a referendum on the Reagan era, partly because of the sharp ideological split between the two candidates and partly because the district counts the President as a constituent.
It also has attracted national media attention as one of the few congressional duels in which an incumbent faces a serious challenge. In 1986, more than 98% of those who sought reelection to the House of Representatives were returned to Washington.
"We have a relatively rare phenomenon underway--a congressional race in which a challenger clearly has an opportunity to win," said Alan Wyner, a professor of political science at University of California, Santa Barbara. "It's something of a symbolic statement about Ronald Reagan, but it's also a very unusual situation just to have a serious hard-fought race between a Democrat and a Republican."
Their debate Sunday in Ventura, their second and last of the race, reflected those high stakes.
Although some of the remarks were nearly identical to those made at the first debate in Santa Maria two weeks before, the verbal barbs seemed a little sharper and more frequent.
Before a hooting crowd of about 700 at Buena High School, Lagomarsino tried to tie his challenger to the failures of the Carter Administration.
"My opponent apparently subscribes to the failed remedies of the 1970s, with its big government, weak defense and blame-America-first attitude," the congressman said. "Wrong person, wrong time, wrong place."
As in the first debate, Lagomarsino, a champion of the local defense industry, also charged that Hart was "not in tune" with the voters of the district, who he says want a strong military and less government intervention.
"The economic prosperity of the last 6 1/2 years was forged through innovation, initiative and an understanding of the dynamics of the free market," Lagomarsino said. "Cutting defense recklessly or raising taxes would be a sure-fire prescription for losing jobs and hurting our national security."
Hart, however, returned the attacks by questioning Lagomarsino's effectiveness in Washington. Of the 20 bills that the congressman sponsored in the last two years, none was voted into law, Hart said.
"I think after 14 years of legislative seniority and experience, one ought to be able to do better than 0 for 20," he said. "In the last session of Congress, our representative has basically struck out time and time again on his own legislative programs."
Hart, who has built a reputation for his efforts on behalf of educational reform, also tried to tie Lagomarsino to the past by noting that the incumbent's first bid at public office occurred while Dwight D. Eisenhower was still President.
"I think this race is largely about the past versus the future, about the status quo versus change," Hart said, adding that better leaders are needed in Washington in order not to "betray the next generation of Americans."
Barbs between the two candidates have punctuated the campaign, beginning several months ago when the controversy surrounding Sen. Dan Quayle's service in the National Guard was used to question Hart's activities during the Vietnam War. Hart, who protested the war by turning in his draft card in 1967, was later excused from service because of a stomach ailment.
"It was a natural thing to bring up," said Ed Bedwell, Lagomarsino campaign manager. "The congressman served in World War II. Gary Hart didn't serve. All we've done is try to articulate some differences."
Later, the Hart campaign criticized Lagomarsino for distributing a political flyer in which the incumbent claimed that he was supported by environmentalists as well as by "seals, pelicans and island foxes."
Although Lagomarsino was instrumental in creating the Channel Islands National Park and adding thousands of acres of wilderness to the Los Padres National Forest, he was also stung by the Washington-based watchdog group Environmental Action, which recently put him on its "Dirty Dozen" list for what it deems one of the worst congressional voting records on environmental issues.
In fact, it was a cartoon caricature of Lagomarsino created by Environmental Action that was used by the Hart campaign in a television ad to portray the congressman as an anti-environmentalist working for oil-industry interests.
In response, say Lagomarsino campaign leaders, they felt no qualms about sketching Hart as a puppet under the control of Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City) and Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica).
"They fired the first shot with the cartoon caricatures," said Bedwell, adding that the Lagomarsino campaign has not been negative, just adept at pointing out the "true" Gary Hart.
"It's just been a matter of not letting him off the hook," Bedwell said.
'Taken Low Road'
Hart campaign leaders see it differently.
"We think Congressman Lagomarsino has taken the low road," said Hart's press secretary, Ann Adler, adding that some constituents had complained that the puppet caricature featuring the three congressmen, who are all Jewish, was anti-Semitic. "He's been attacking things that are really just stumbling blocks to keep voters from getting at the real issues."
Both candidates have run well-financed campaigns. According to the most recent reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, Lagomarsino's reelection committee has spent $1.2 million while Hart's campaign has spent $1.09 million.
In just the first 19 days of October, the Republican's campaign spent $218,952 while the Democratic challenger spent $186,242. Both sides say they have reserved tens of thousands of dollars of television time for the final week of the campaign.
Lagomarsino, 62, a wealthy lawyer who traces his roots to two Ventura County pioneer families, has received high ratings from the American Conservative Union, the National Security Index of the American Security Council and the California Congressional Recognition Program, a privately endowed trust at Claremont McKenna College.
Chevron, Sunkist Contribute
His financial backers include political action committees for defense contractors, farmers and oil producers. Chevron Oil has contributed $3,400; Sunkist has given $4,650, and the Virginia-based Council for National Defense, a conservative think-tank, has provided $5,000, according to expense reports.
Hart, a 45-year-old former high school teacher who earned his master's degree in education from Harvard University, is endorsed by the Sierra Club, the California League of Conservation Voters and Environmental Action.
Among his sources of funding are labor unions, education groups and key Democratic leaders. The Assn. of Trial Lawyers gave him $5,000; the Committee of Letter Carriers contributed $4,500, and United Food and Commercial Workers sent him $5,000, expense reports show.
Of the 319,528 registered voters in the 19th Congressional District, 148,299 are registered as Democrats and 131,398 are registered as Republicans. A poll published Oct. 23 by the Santa Barbara News-Press showed Lagomarsino holding a 7-point lead over Hart.