In a development that gives actor Ralph Waite a boost in his bid to perform on the Washington stage, the Democrats' congressional campaign chairman has revealed that Waite's race against incumbent Rep. Al McCandless is one of just two in California being targeted for party support this election year.
During a meeting with Waite and 40 Riverside civic leaders, Rep. Beryl Anthony (D-Arkansas), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, pledged the panel's commitment to the actor and declared his race against McCandless winnable.
"The reason I'm here is to tell Ralph Waite supporters that we have evaluated this race, it has made the cut . . . and we have elevated it to the top level," said Anthony, whose stop Monday in the 37th Congressional District was the first on a five-state campaign swing.
Anthony conceded that Waite's effort to unseat McCandless is "a long shot." But he argued that the actor, best known for his role as the father on the 1970s television show "The Waltons," has a solid chance because of polls that show the La Quinta Republican has low name recognition.
A poll commissioned in May by the Waite campaign showed that 49% of district voters likely to cast ballots in November had not heard of McCandless, who served as a Riverside County supervisor before being elected to Congress in 1982. Only 22% of those polled could name their congressman.
McCandless "has no legislative record, no legislative accomplishments," Anthony said. He added that Waite, a Rancho Mirage resident whose celebrity status makes him a familiar figure in many households, can capitalize on his opponent's relative anonymity and "convince the voters there is a viable alternative."
McCandless was unavailable for comment. But spokesman James Moore attributed the weak name recognition to the rapid population growth in the district, which spans almost all of Riverside County.
"Al is out there," Moore said, "but the fact is people are moving into this district so quickly that he hasn't had a chance to become well known."
Moore dismissed the Democratic Party support for Waite as "insignificant," noting that "the people in Washington aren't the ones who vote for the candidate."
Echoing that view was a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, which is advising the McCandless campaign.
"We don't see any cause for panic out there," said the spokesman, David DuBose. "Al McCandless has done a good job, he's served his district well. But it's a sexy race (for the Democrats). They're targeting it because it's got some Hollywood flash."
In addition to providing financial support of up to $50,000, the Democratic campaign committee will supply Waite with field staff, demographic researchers and other assistance. The commitment marks the first time the committee has shown an interest in the 37th District, where a Republican majority in voter registration has helped McCandless score a string of victories.
The only other California race targeted by the Democrats' national committee this year is in the 17th Congressional District. Democratic analysts consider Rep. Charles (Chip) Pashayan Jr. (R-Fresno), who has held office since 1978, vulnerable by to a challenge from rancher Cal Dooley.