For Democratic candidates, the 42nd Congressional District should be as inviting as the Sahara.

Republicans hold a 53% to 36% edge in registration in the largely coastal district, which stretches south from Torrance to Huntington Beach. The incumbent, Dana Rohrabacher (R-Lomita), is sitting on $100,000 in campaign cash and faces no primary opponent.

Despite the adverse conditions, three Democrats--James Cavuoto, Guy C. Kimbrough and Bryan W. Stevens--are competing for the right to take on Rohrabacher.

The catalyst was a new political strategy fashioned by Democratic organizers last fall. The objective: safety in numbers.

"We felt that the more people we ran, the more our message would get out, and the better chance we would have against Rohrabacher," Stevens said.

Since the blueprint was unveiled last fall, however, cooperation has turned to competition. With a less than two weeks left before the June 5 primary, the three Democrats find themselves concentrating less on Rohrabacher and more on each other.

Going head to head are a first-time candidate and a pair of returning hopefuls, each awaiting a their first election to office.

Cavuoto, 33, is a political newcomer who owns a Torrance publishing firm that caters to the computer industry.

Kimbrough, who lost to Rohrabacher 33% to 64% in the 1988 general election, is a 44-year-old political science instructor at Mt. San Jacinto College. He is from Huntington Beach.

Stevens, 68, is a retired teacher and former president of the California Teachers Assn. who ran unsuccessfully for state Assembly in 1950 and for Congress in 1964 and 1966. He is from Rolling Hills Estates.

On most issues, the positions of all three candidates are nearly identical. Each supports abortion rights and opposes new offshore oil drilling. And each says that "wedge" issues such as these can be used to pry GOP votes from Rohrabacher, who favors a ban on abortion and generally supports development of offshore oil reserves.

But there are also disagreements among the three, most noticeably on the death penalty and the strategic defense initiative, or SDI.

Kimbrough supports the death penalty when a murder is particularly heinous or violent or when a police officer is the victim. Cavuoto and Stevens oppose capital punishment under any conditions, arguing that it does not deter crime, costs more to carry out than life imprisonment because of the cost of appeals and is morally wrong.

"This is not a position I hide from," Cavuoto said. "In using the death penalty, we are alone among all the democracies of the world with the exception of South Africa. That's not very good company."

On space weaponry, Kimbrough supports limited funding--$1 billion annually--for the strategic defense initiative, whereas Cavuoto says he opposes any expenditure on the program. Stevens has said he favors some funding for the program but has not specified a figure.

Kimbrough charges that Cavuoto's stand on strategic defense is symptomatic of an approach that could hurt Southern California's economy. "Unlike Jim Cavuoto, I am not running against the entire aerospace industry," he said.

Cavuoto points out that many scientists consider the strategic defense program a waste of money. He angrily denies Kimbrough's portrayal of his attitude toward the aerospace industry.

"I came from the aerospace industry," said Cavuoto, a former employee of Hughes Aircraft who also edited a laser industry trade magazine. "That's a totally outrageous thing for him to say."

Cavuoto says the main reason he is seeking a seat in Congress is to promote programs aimed at improving the technological competitiveness of U.S. industry. A key to that goal, he says, is converting the high-tech defense industry from military to civilian production.

"In recent weeks we've been seeing the importance as literally tens of thousands of people are losing their jobs," said Cavuoto, referring to recent layoffs by Southern California defense contractors. "We are losing our leadership in the world. It's time to reverse that."

All three candidates say that to ease the federal budget deficit, they would support tax increases. But their approaches differ.

Cavuoto says he would raise federal income tax rates for upper-income earners, lower them for middle-income earners and impose an excise levy on corporate takeover deals. Stevens also favors raising rates for taxpayers with the highest incomes.

Kimbrough says he supports raising the so-called sin taxes on alcohol and tobacco and increasing the gas tax to reduce the deficit: "It doesn't take big increases in those areas to generate a substantial amount of income."

The most intense competition in the Democrats' primary campaign has been between Kimbrough and Cavuoto. Each reports raising $5,000--far more than Stevens, who says he has collected only $35. And both have battled hard for endorsements.

Kimbrough's backers include the California Teachers Assn. and the Public Affairs Council of the California Teamsters. But Cavuoto stunned Kimbrough at last month's state Democratic convention by winning the party endorsement in a caucus vote.

The two candidates disagree about which of them would fare better against Rohrabacher. Kimbrough says his support for the death penalty and for SDI funding would attract more Republicans.

"I happen to believe my positions are more consistent with the views of the voters in my district," Kimbrough said.

Cavuoto acknowledges that most Californians favor the death penalty but says he doubts that he will be penalized by his position. His support for ending SDI, he says, would woo Republicans, not repel them.

"Cutting out wasteful weapons programs is a conservative strategy," he said.

Kimbrough says that such jousting with Cavuoto has left him with mixed emotions about the wisdom of his party's multi-candidate approach to this year's 42nd District race.

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