In a last-minute push to raise cash, a top aide to Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) pleaded with Washington lobbyists for campaign contributions to fend off an unexpectedly tough primary challenge.
In telephone calls made last week, the aide reportedly told lobbyists who represent Orange County interests that a private poll shows Dornan's Tuesday primary opponent, former Orange County Superior Court Judge Judith A. Ryan, trailing by only 5 percentage points.
On Wednesday, Dornan denied that the poll, commissioned on his behalf, shows the race to be that close. "I'm winning. There's no problem," said the seven-term conservative, who is facing an unexpectedly spirited primary challenge from Ryan, a political novice.
Dornan declined to release specific figures, except to say that the poll shows that 29% of the voters remain undecided, an exceptionally large number with the Republican primary less than a week away. The Dornan-Ryan contest in Orange County's new 46th Congressional District is one of the most heated and closely watched in the nation.
Ryan, 49, is attacking the 59-year-old Dornan on his strong stand against abortion. Dornan is seeking to portray Ryan, who lives in Yorba Linda, outside the central Orange County district, as a carpetbagger who is a tool of liberal, feminist and Democratic interests.
Dornan had raised $272,000 as of May 13, the end of the last reporting period, while Ryan had raised $165,000. Since May 13, Ryan campaign officials said they have raised an additional $45,000.
On Wednesday, Dornan aides told the lobbyist contributors that they would return their checks, saying the congressman has a policy against accepting contributions from those who represent Orange County government agencies and companies, and who routinely seek Dornan's help.
"It was my mistake to solicit the two guys I did," said Joseph Eule, Dornan's legislative director. "I called them on my own, on my own time. Our opponent has a lot of outside money coming in, so I thought I should call these guys and solicit some money from them."
Eule said that the checks, which totaled $750, were sent back to the contributors on Saturday.
Aides on the congressional payroll are not supposed to participate in campaign activities on office time, or use resources paid for by taxpayers, such as office telephones, for campaign purposes.
In practice, however, the House ethics committee has granted aides wide latitude to perform campaign functions, as long as their boss, the member of Congress, certifies that the campaign activity is on the aides' own time and does not conflict with their official duties.
A lobbyist who spoke only on the condition of anonymity described the solicitation he received last Friday as "frantic."
"They called and said they needed the money right away, and that they had a poll showing Ryan was within five points," the lobbyist said.
Eule, however, said he never used the five-point figure. "I don't have a poll that shows Ryan within five points of Bob Dornan. It shows the boss clearly ahead." He said he could not provide further details, but added, "There are a lot of people who think the race is close, and we're not taking any chances."
Another lobbyist, who also asked not to be named, said, "I can tell you they are very nervous," adding that it is unusual for Dornan to solicit contributions from lobbyists, especially those based in Washington.
One of the most successful fund-raisers in Congress, Dornan in the past has relied almost exclusively on nationwide, direct-mail campaigns to raise as much as $1 million a year.
"It's kind of a new thing for them, they have never done fund-raising in town," the lobbyist said. "I have heard from other people that they are getting desperate for cash."
One of the lobbyists who was solicited said he responded gladly. "Dornan is kind of an interesting character in a lot of ways, but in terms of Orange County, he's a pretty solid guy," the lobbyist said. "He's been a very good person for us and for Orange County."
"He's shaken, I know he's shaken," said Eileen Padberg, Ryan's political consultant. "I've heard it from a number of people, (that) he's also been threatening and muscling people in Orange County, the (Republican) party VIP types."
Padberg said she would not be surprised if Ryan had narrowed the gap with Dornan, largely because the former judge has walked more than half the precincts in the new district, and had raised enough money to finance a series of direct mail pieces.
"I had no idea all these special interest abortion groups were going to dump over $200,000 into this campaign," Dornan said, referring to the amount of money that Ryan's campaign claims to have raised to date. "This is the most deceitful, deceptive and despicable campaign I've ever been in." Nevertheless, Dornan predicted that he will prevail with about 60% of the vote, to 40% for Ryan.
The congressman said he received a telephone call Wednesday from President Bush, asking what he could do to help. Dornan said he asked for a telegram of support, not from the President, but from the First Lady, Barbara Bush, whose favorable ratings in Orange County are far higher than either Dornan's or the President's. Bush agreed to provide it, Dornan said.
Dornan said the poll was commissioned for his campaign by Rep. Randy (Duke) Cunningham (R-San Diego), without his knowledge, and will be listed as an "in-kind" contribution on the campaign's financial reports. Dornan refused to identify the company that conducted the poll.
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