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Umberg Ahead in Early Returns : Legislature: Incumbent Pringle was targeted by state Democrats on Orange County’s most closely watched race. Republicans were running in front in all the other contests.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Democrat Tom Umberg took an early lead Tuesday night over 72nd District Assemblyman Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove) in the nastiest and most closely watched of Orange County’s nine state legislative races.

Umberg, a former federal prosecutor, was cautiously optimistic upon seeing the early returns. “We’re certainly heartened,” he said. “They brought out everyone imaginable.”

Republicans brought in some of their biggest names in trying to help Pringle win reelection: former President Ronald Reagan, Vice President Dan Quayle and Iran-Contra figure Oliver North have all appeared on the assemblyman’s behalf.

Pringle also made reference to the intense interest the race has generated in Sacramento: “I knew it was going to be a close race when Willie Brown pointed at me and said, ‘You, you’re the one I’m going after.’ ”

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The 72nd District, comprising much of central Orange County, is the only district in the county with a Democratic majority. Pringle won the seat in 1988 by about 800 votes in an election marred by the Republican Party’s employment of uniformed guards at several heavily Latino precincts in Santa Ana.

State Democrats made capturing the seat one of their top priorities this year.

“If Tom Umberg can’t win this seat this year against this candidate, you might as well pack it all in and make it a one-party county,” said Jim Curran, a field director for the state Democratic Party’s Victory ’90 program.

Republicans were winning easily in all the other races.

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The only Assembly race without an incumbent running was in the 58th District, which extends from Huntington Beach along the coast into Long Beach. Assemblyman Dennis Brown (R-Los Alamitos) declined to run for reelection, and Huntington Beach Mayor Thomas J. Mays emerged from a crowded field in June as the Republican primary winner.

His Democratic opponent is Long Beach public relations executive Luanne W. Pryor. The district is heavily Republican, and Mays took an early lead of more than 2 to 1.

In the 64th District in North County, Democrat Kevin Grant Gardner offered little more than token opposition to powerful Assembly Minority Leader Ross Johnson (R-La Habra). Johnson captured almost 70% of the early returns.

In the 67th District, Chapman College political science Professor Fred Smoller challenged Assemblyman John R. Lewis (R-Orange) with a series of hard-hitting cable TV ads attacking Lewis’ ethics. Smoller’s aggressive, if underfunded, campaign bothered Lewis enough to provoke the assemblyman into challenging the accuracy of Smoller’s campaign finance reports.

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Smoller harped on two things during his campaign: Lewis’s abysmal ratings among legislators and their aides in a poll conducted by the California Journal, a monthly political magazine, and Lewis’ indictment last year for allegedly forging the signature of Ronald Reagan on campaign mailers in 1986. The charges were eventually dismissed.

Despite the aggressive campaign, Smoller trailed in early returns by more than 2 to 1.

Another pesky challenger turned up in the 69th District, where attorney James Toledano fired salvos at Assemblyman Nolan Frizzelle (R-Fountain Valley) for refusing to debate him face to face. Toledano also complained that Frizzelle was misusing his Assembly office staff in his campaign. Frizzelle denied the allegations.

Toledano was trailing badly in early returns, with Frizzelle leading by more than 2 to 1.

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In the 70th District, Assemblyman Gil Ferguson (R-Newport Beach) faced former county Democratic Party Chairman Howard Adler, who was running, mostly, to keep the party on the ballot in that district. Ferguson captured more than two-thirds of the early returns. Another well-organized, volunteer-based campaign was run by Cypress College Professor Peter Mathews in the 71st District. The district has the next-best registration figures for Democrats after the 72nd District, but Mathews was trailing incumbent Doris Allen (R-Cypress) by almost 2 to 1 following the first returns.

In the 74th District, which includes San Clemente and part of North San Diego County, Robert C. Frazee (R-Carlsbad) was winning handily over Oceanside Democrat Gerald Franklin, a high school teacher, and two minor party candidates.

Only one of Orange County’s five state senators faced reelection this year--Anaheim Republican Edward R. Royce, who was facing Evelyn Colon Becktell, director of a senior citizens’ center in Santa Ana. Royce was leading Becktell almost 2 to 1 in early returns.

Times staff writers Ted Johnson and Janice Jones contributed to this article.

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