STATE ELECTIONS / 78th ASSEMBLY DISTRICT : GOP Rivals Mirror Party's Ideological Split

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The sharpest philosophical differences in this year's 78th Assembly District race may be found not in the November election between a Republican and a Democrat, but in next week's GOP primary between two diametrical opposites.

Mirroring the divisive split seen in a handful of other Republican Assembly primaries here and throughout California, former Assemblyman Jeff Marston, a moderate backed by Gov. Pete Wilson, faces Dan Van Tieghem, a former computer company owner and a staunch conservative with strong ties to the so-called "Christian right" political movement.

By conventional political standards, Wilson's recent endorsement of Marston would seem to exacerbate the considerable name-recognition and fund-raising disadvantages with which Van Tieghem began--and is ending--the campaign. But Van Tieghem, blending detached analysis with dim hope, offers a more optimistic assessment.

"If I'm getting outspent 10 to 1, and the governor has to rush in to help my opponent, that must mean I'm doing something right," Van Tieghem said. "It's like, wow, I must have them a little scared."

Polar opposites on abortion, gun control and other major issues, Marston and Van Tieghem agree on few things other than the fact that they differ more with each other than Marston does with Democratic Assemblywoman Dede Alpert.

And that, both candidates add, is the critical distinction that the district's 98,000 Republican voters should weigh when they go to the polls in the 78th District, which stretches along the coast from Del Mar's southern boundary to the Mexican border, extending inland to include portions of Clairemont, Linda Vista, Old Town, Hillcrest and North Park.

"Marston got beat last time by a Democrat because people couldn't tell the difference, and the same thing will happen again if he goes against Alpert," Van Tieghem said, referring to Marston's 1990 loss to Democrat Mike Gotch in the 78th District. "Our best chance is to have a definite contrast between the Republican and the Democrat."

Two years ago, Marston defeated Gotch in a special spring primary for a vacant Assembly seat, but lost by a razor-thin 45%-44% margin in their November rematch for a full two-year term. Because of reapportionment, Gotch is seeking reelection in a different district this year.

Describing himself as "a moderate candidate in a moderate district," Marston argues that Van Tieghem's far-right conservatism on social issues would endanger the Republicans' chances of defeating Alpert, despite the GOP's 45%-38% edge among registered voters in the district. Alpert is unopposed on the June 2 ballot, as is Peace and Freedom Party candidate Sally Sherry O'Brien.

"If my opponent, with his basic single-issue, feet-in-cement approach, gets by me for the nomination, this seat is gone," said the 36-year-old Marston, who has worked for a public relations firm since his 1990 loss.

Although the two Assembly hopefuls generally concur on topics such as support for tax cuts, welfare reform and tightened state spending, Marston acknowledges that they have been defined in voters' minds by their differences "on four or five lightning-rod issues"--among them, abortion, gun control, gay rights and education reform.

Marston supports abortion rights, gun control and gay rights but says he has "real concerns" about a controversial "voucher" plan under which public funds could be used to pay for private school tuitions. Van Tieghem holds the opposite position on each of those volatile issues, sometimes framing his thinking in blunt terms that make even his philosophical allies uncomfortable.

For example, Van Tieghem likens pro-choice advocacy on abortion to the atmosphere in pre-Hitler Germany--a stance that clearly places him in the far-right faction he assiduously tries to avoid by describing himself as "an Eisenhower-type Republican."

"Before Hitler took over, Germany had abortions, and that's where the loss of respect for life began," said Van Tieghem, who has been arrested three times for his Operation Rescue abortion protests. "People blame Hitler for everything that happened, but the lack of respect for life was already there."

The pro-choice movement, Van Tieghem adds, has also spawned support for euthanasia and for programs assisting those wanting to commit suicide.

With those broad philosophical differences serving as a backdrop, Van Tieghem and Marston have also debated the political usefulness--or lack thereof--of their equally divergent styles.

Running on the theme from his 1990 campaign, "Working Together for a Change," Marston portrays himself as a conciliator able to bridge party and ideological lines. In contrast, Van Tieghem, adopting the "Republican Tax Fighter" label favored by many conservatives this spring, has positioned himself as an unyielding devotee to principle.

"Jeff actually brags about being a compromiser who forms coalitions, but all that means is that you end up voting with (Assembly Speaker) Willie Brown a lot, like he did when he was in Sacramento," said Van Tieghem, 56. "We need people with strong principles who aren't going to bend. If you lose some battles, you lose them. But, in the long run, you'll win."

In a mailer, Van Tieghem contends that Marston sided with Brown on 89% of the votes during his six-month tenure in Sacramento--a period during which the Legislature was in session for only 10 weeks.

Dismissing that figure as a "totally phony, misleading" statistic, Marston notes that it is based on large numbers of so-called consent agenda items, non-controversial matters that routinely receive unanimous support.

"You don't compromise on principle, but you sometimes have to compromise on how you reach the goals of your principles," Marston said. "That's just the way the system works. It sounds like my opponent is waiting for a majority of the Legislature to be made up of people who think like him before he does anything. I'm not sure that's ever going to happen."

Chipping away at one of Van Tieghem's overarching themes, Marston points to his opponent's anti-abortion stance as a contradiction of his strident advocacy of reduced government intrusion in individuals' private lives.

"That looks like a bend to me," Marston said.

Given their wide-ranging differences of style and substance, it is not surprising that the 78th District race has taken a negative turn in its closing weeks.

Belittling Van Tieghem's "Tax Fighter" label, one Marston brochure charges that Van Tieghem has had tax liens placed against him by the county, state and federal governments for non-payment of taxes--all but one of which has since been paid off, Van Tieghem says. The same brochure contrasts Marston's endorsement by law enforcement groups with Van Tieghem's three anti-abortion protest arrests.

"You know the Democrats would love to have that stuff to work with in the fall," said Marston, a one-time aide to former San Diego City Councilwoman Gloria McColl and Sen. S. I. Hayakawa (R-Calif.).

Van Tieghem, meanwhile, often refers to Marston as a career bureaucrat, former incumbent or liberal--terms intended to make him a target for the public's growing antipathy toward politics.

Some of Marston's yard signs have also had sheets of paper saying, "Supports the killing of unborn children" stapled to them--political guerrilla warfare in which Van Tieghem and his aides deny having any involvement.

Although his stay in Sacramento in 1990 was a brief one, Marston tells campaign audiences that it provides a glimpse of how he would perform if given the chance to serve a full term.

Marston points with pride to his leading role in legislation that established stiffer penalties for methamphetamine dealers and that restored $5.1 million to a program that provides jobs, transportation and other services to elderly and disabled people. He also gained $2 million in park and recreation funds for his district.

"I found that, if you live the rhetoric, it works," Marston said of his "working together" message.

Van Tieghem, who has never before sought public office, is the former regional director of the Virginia-based Christian Coalition, an outgrowth of television evangelist Pat Robertson's unsuccessful 1988 presidential campaign that promotes greater Christian political activism.

In 1990, Van Tieghem played a major role in a campaign under which dozens of Christian fundamentalists were elected to low-level school, hospital and other community boards throughout San Diego County.

Some of those victories came in "stealth" campaigns, in which the candidates quietly appealed to anti-abortion, pro-gun, church and other conservative groups, while remaining all but invisible to the rest of the public and opponents.

Eschewing those tactics, Van Tieghem has appeared at most candidate forums and has made no attempt to downplay the intensity of his anti-abortion or religious convictions. Even Marston concedes that Van Tieghem has been "pretty up-front, pretty candid" about his positions.

Of greater concern to Marston is whether Van Tieghem is effectively camouflaging the extensive grass-roots work that made the 1990 far-right campaigns here so successful. Consequently, though his $100,000 budget is about 10 times bigger than Van Tieghem's, Marston said his "healthy respect" for the Christian right's political prowess has simply heightened his "normal paranoia" in the race's closing days.

"We've got people checking around, but they haven't found much--yet," Marston said. "So, if they're doing something, they're doing a very good job of keeping it quiet. I'm just going to assume that's the case and not let up one bit."

Dan Van Tieghem: "Jeff actually brags about being a compromiser who forms coalitions, but all that means is that you end up voting with (Assembly Speaker) Willie Brown a lot, like he did when he was in Sacramento. We need people with strong principles who aren't going to bend. If you lose some battles, you lose them. But, in the long run, you'll win."

Jeff Marston: "You don't compromise on principle, but you sometimes have to compromise on how you reach the goals of your principles. That's just the way the system works. It sounds like my opponent is waiting for a majority of the Legislature to be made up of people who think like him before he does anything. I'm not sure that's ever going to happen."

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