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Acrimony Abounds as Campaigns Draw to Close : Politics: Libel suits, false claims and nasty stunts make this one of the meanest primary seasons on record.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Amid a cascade of campaign dollars and 11th-hour acrimony uncommon even by political standards, San Diego’s most dynamic, competitive primary season in a decade is lunging toward Tuesday’s finish line, careening between high drama and low comedy in its final days.

For voters who must sift through the 451 candidates running for 327 positions throughout the county, an already confusing task has become even more daunting under the nonstop barrage of caustic, often inaccurate charges and countercharges dominating the major contests on Tuesday’s ballot.

Within the last week alone, Byron Georgiou sued Lynn Schenk for alleged libel and slander in her ads in their 49th Congressional District race, while state Sen. Wadie Deddeh threatened to sue 50th District opponent Bob Filner over a possible mailer. Another day, Kurdish protesters tried to link Deddeh, who hopes to become the first Iraqi-American elected to Congress, to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein--a stunt that Deddeh traced to his opponents.

A privately produced “Voter Guide to Pro-Choice Republicans” infuriated pro-choice Republicans left out of it because they did not pay to be included. Anti-abortion activists were equally furious, fearing that the brochure’s clever design would deceive voters into thinking it was an official booklet from the county registrar of voters.

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On the other side of the volatile abortion issue, a mailer endorsing numerous hard-line conservatives was denounced for not mentioning their strident anti-abortion policies--an attempt, opponents charged, to again wage the kind of “stealth” campaigns that the so-called Christian right used effectively here in 1990.

A flyer for conservative 76th Assembly District candidate Dick Daleke falsely stated that he had been endorsed by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn.--a key tax-fighting group. Daleke termed the error “a good faith, unintentional mistake.” But his major opponent, former Del Mar Mayor Ronnie Delaney, saw it as “a pretty convenient mistake.”

As candidates’ complaints about opponents’ “hit” pieces, obfuscations or distortions reached a crescendo, perhaps there was no better symbol of a campaign that has been alternately compelling and puerile, inspiring and disheartening than a flyer that began arriving in voters’ mailboxes this weekend.

Headlined “An important message from JIMMY CARTER,” the mailer urged voters to support Democrat Tom Carter in Tuesday’s San Diego mayoral campaign. At the bottom of a short note addressed to “My Fellow Americans,” it was made clear that the endorsement came, not from the former president, but rather the candidate’s restaurateur brother of the same name.

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Carter’s strategists characterized the mailer as a humorous attention getter, but his opponents--and some voters--were not laughing, and pointed out that the flyer never specified that the endorser was not the Jimmy Carter.

“The deception and negative campaigning is the worst I’ve ever seen,” said former Rep. Jim Bates, who is attempting a comeback against Deddeh, Filner and three other Democrats on the 50th District ballot. Bates, whose two-decade public career ended in a 1990 upset loss, attributes that trend in part to the increasingly rare direct contact between candidates and voters.

“Citizens are almost being bypassed, with the only communicating going on through mail and TV ads,” Bates said. “You can say things there you don’t have the guts to say eye to eye.”

Even Bates, though, sent out a mailer last week saying: “Jim Bates never sold out to the special interests. Filner and Deddeh both did.”

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Deddeh countered with a comparison of the three major candidates’ records entitled “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” Even the most casual political observer should have no difficulty determining which word Deddeh used to describe himself. And Filner’s TV commercials and mailers have become increasingly truculent in the race’s final week.

Lamenting that voters “get nothing but attack after attack and lie after lie in the last week,” Georgiou predicts that the turnout in Tuesday’s election could be even lower than the 35% range forecast by many campaign consultants.

Dismissing suggestions that his lawsuit against Schenk is simply, as her top aide put it, “a desperate gimmick,” Georgiou insists he will pursue it regardless of Tuesday’s outcome. The suit stems from what Georgiou calls the “patently false, intentional lies” in Schenk mailers and TV ads that include acerbic attacks on his personal and political record.

“We have to establish some range to the character assassination that can go on in a campaign, and maybe this lawsuit could do that,” Georgiou said. “There have to be limits, a line that shouldn’t be crossed. It’s no wonder why the public is so turned off to politics.”

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That growing antipathy toward politics, combined with the lingering recession and the large number of candidates in unusually competitive races, have made fund-raising a major challenge for most candidates this spring.

Consequently, some wealthy candidates are relying heavily on their own checkbooks. That is particularly true in the congressional races, where nearly $1 million in candidates’ personal money will be spent in the 49th District alone.

Georgiou and Republican Alan Uke had each loaned their respective committees about $220,000 as of last week, while Schenk and GOP contender Ray Saatjian both were at the $150,000 mark. Those figures almost certainly will grow by Election Day, as could the more modest $48,000 and $15,000 loans that Ron Hecker and Skip Cox, respectively, made to their campaigns.

In the 50th District, Filner is the only Democrat whose campaign finance reports reveal a major infusion of personal funds. To date, about one quarter of his $300,000 treasury has come from Filner himself, and his flurry of final week mail and TV ads led opponents to predict a substantial rise in both numbers.

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The increasingly acrimonious finger-pointing and distortions seen recently have darkened an otherwise exhilarating primary season in which anti-incumbent fervor, the congressional check-writing scandal and newly drawn districts provided the backdrop.

With San Diego Mayor Maureen O’Connor’s retirement setting the stage for an impending change in leadership, six candidates have battled for the right to succeed her in the 11th-floor mayoral suite at City Hall.

Most attention has focused on county Supervisor Susan Golding, managed-growth advocate Peter Navarro, San Diego City Councilman Ron Roberts and businessman Carter, with long shots Bill Thomas and frequent candidate Loch David Crane rounding out the ballot. Unless the victor in Tuesday’s primary receives a 50%-plus majority--as unlikely politically as it is arithmetically--the top two vote-getters will compete in a November runoff.

San Diego County’s congressional and state legislative campaigns, for years typically races more in name than in fact due to incumbents’ considerable advantages and their districts’ heavily lopsided demographics, have yielded unusually competitive matchups this spring.

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The relative political parity found in the 49th Congressional District has produced a 17-candidate scramble in the Republican and Democratic primaries.

In contrast, Democrats’ 51%-35% edge among registered voters in the 50th District could make victory in the Democratic primary tantamount to election--a fact that helps explain the growing bitterness among Bates, Deddeh and Filner, and lifts the admittedly slim hopes of the three long shots on the ballot.

Although GOP Rep. Duncan Hunter is a prohibitive favorite in the newly drawn 52nd District, his primary could provide one of the purest measures of the depth of public anger over the House check-bouncing scandal. The relative weakness of the six-term incumbent’s two GOP opponents, many argue, will cause their votes to be seen primarily as a protest against an arrogant Congress badly out of step with average Americans.

Among the state Assembly races, most of the drama involves four Republican primaries in which moderates endorsed by Gov. Pete Wilson confront far-right conservatives with close ties to Christian political activists. A sweep by either faction could have major import not only on the widening rift within the California Republican Party, but also on Wilson’s own political future.

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Nineteen ballot measures also will be contested throughout San Diego County. Of those measures, arguably the highest profile race involves Proposition F, a proposal that would allow the city of San Diego to turn over a small strip of land to a nonprofit group in order to preserve the Mount Soledad cross.

But while Tuesday’s elections could begin to dramatically alter San Diego’s political landscape, the lingering impression of Primary ’92 may well be the low road on which many campaigns are ending.

Indeed, having begun with candidates’ bright promises to heed the public’s growing disenchantment by putting an end to politics as usual, the primary, on balance, “was no better and in some ways a lot worse” than most past campaigns, Georgiou said, echoing a common view.

“I think most voters can separate the legitimate information from the gutter tactics,” Georgiou concluded. “But the problem is, with some of this stuff, if you even can find the truth after all the lies and distortions, you probably won’t figure it out until after the election. That’s what we have to change.”

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Staff Writers Leonard Bernstein in San Diego and James Bornemeier in Washington contributed to this report.


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