As Time Runs Out, Candidates Stand Tall in Face of Defeat

Abigail Goldman is a Times staff writer.

They were billed as victory parties. But there were no rousing speeches, no balloons, no snappy band music. No victories either.

These were the two parties thrown by Tuesday's losers, the hopefuls who would not concede the election even after state Sen. David A. Roberti's 2-1 margin seemed solidified. The ones who weren't quite sure how election parties were supposed to work. The ones abandoned early on by the TV crews, who preferred to wait out the returns in their trucks rather than mingle with the defeated.

At once pitiable and proud, resolute and yet disappointed, these were the folks the TV cameras wouldn't see anyway. Thirty-second interviews with campaign managers do not convey a sparsely filled room or the sinking spirits of people waiting for bad, but increasingly, inevitable news.

But how you view these people depends mostly on who you are, on what (and in whom) you believe.

In the Balboa room of the Airtel Plaza Hotel in Van Nuys, where about 75 people gathered and never quite filled the room, a group of men in T-shirts watched a videotaped Connie Chung recount their recall efforts over and over again in an endless video loop. After about the third showing of the news segment, some of the group wandered back toward the mini-pizza and spring roll appetizers. Others stayed and watched again.

Bill Dominguez, a systems analyst from Van Nuys and one of the four candidates hoping to replace Roberti in Sacramento, strode in with a group of supporters about 9 p.m. and staked out a table that would be his home for the rest of the night.

He is much bigger than his voice. Listeners have to lean in close to hear Dominguez speak, close enough to see the beads of sweat that form on his forehead when he's asked a question, close enough to see the camera-lens thickness of his simple and small glasses. His 200-plus pounds, poured onto a nearly 6-foot-3 frame, seems mismatched.

The early news put Roberti ahead of his would-be recallers at an almost 2-1 margin. With the first few precincts reporting, Dominguez was a much-behind second. In between phone calls and whispered bits of election news, Dominguez sat quietly at his table, his knee rapidly bouncing up and down as he waited for a tide change that wouldn't come.

Voices from other clusters of supporters carried throughout the room.

A radio reporter loudly explained that the recall effort was poorly planned, and even offered his own prescription--too late, he said--to defeat the senator: "Roberti is an idiot. But if they had listened to me early on, I told them that if he has one defense, you need three things to throw back at him. It's an old debating technique that those guys never mastered . . . "

Others complained about unfair and Roberti-biased media coverage every time reporters walked by.

The other failed victor's party had a more courtly tone.

About a mile away at the 94th Aero Squadron Restaurant, with a view of the Van Nuys Airport landing strip, supporters of gun-shop owner and candidate Randy Linkmeyer gathered in a dark, wooded room decorated in World War I motif, with old airplane wings hanging from the ceiling and framed pictures of the Statue of Liberty and a bald eagle hanging on the wall.

Groups of men in button-down shirts spoke quietly to women in party dresses seated at tables arranged around gas-burning fireplaces. On the patio, around another fireplace, a group of men smoked cigars and an affable, blue blazer-clad Tom Hanson, Linkmeyer's campaign director, hummed along with piped-in Doris Day singing her World War II-era hit "Sentimental Journey."

The roughly 60 people at this gathering talked about democracy and the right of recall. They talked about wanting to see their senator out in his bathrobe like the rest of the neighbors after an earthquake and how they spent about $4,000 to Roberti's nearly $750,000--and about believing that they had a chance to win anyway, even when the returns put their candidate dead last among the four contenders.

Like at the other party, they all prefaced their comments by saying this election wasn't about guns. It was about crime and carpetbagging and buying elections, they said. But guns usually crept into their conversations anyway, as they talked about how they met gun-shop owner Linkmeyer or their Second Amendment right to bear arms.

Paul Harper, in a crisp white shirt and tall beige cowboy hat, said the gun issue was a "small part" of his reason for supporting the recall and Linkmeyer. His father gave him a pistol when he was 12 years old, he said, and told him to protect his mother and three sisters. "I've still got it," he said quietly.

And although he wouldn't admit defeat, Harper wanted to put the event in perspective. "I wouldn't be here if I didn't believe we could win," he said. "If it doesn't happen, well, we'll live with it."

Back at the coalition's party, their numbers bolstered by supporters of candidate Dolores White, the most anxious members of the crowds seemed to be the reporters--eager for the recall candidates to acknowledge defeat so they could go home, some wishing aloud that they had been assigned to the Roberti camp.

Admitting that he wasn't quite sure "how these things work," Dominguez nonetheless would not concede.

With two scotches under his belt, Dominguez beamed when he came up with a line to give the anxious reporters: "I will not concede this as a loss," he finally said. "I think it has been a victory for us and a defeat for Roberti."

At 12:30 p.m., leaving behind about 15 people still sitting around near-empty tables, Dominguez stood up, adjusted his pants, and walked out of the ballroom by himself.

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