With a month still to go before the June 7 primary, the three-way Republican contest in the 70th Assembly District would already seem to have had more than its share of political intrigue.
Abortion, bankruptcy, a threatened lawsuit and even the knifing of one candidate by a homeless man have already been floated as potential "Gotcha!" issues designed to knock any one of the candidates out of the race.
So far, the three GOP candidates, Marilyn C. Brewer, Barry J. Hammond and Thomas G. Reinecke, are still firmly in the race.
But in Republican-dominated Orange County, where intraparty warfare is not uncommon, there is one guarantee in this otherwise uncertain race: The attacks are only going to get worse.
"It's just starting, it's just starting," Brewer's political consultant, Harvey Englander, said while trying to duck during a recent exchange of political gunfire between the Reinecke and Hammond camps.
The stakes are high because the GOP nominee in the state's most Republican Assembly district will be heavily favored to win the November general election against the only Democrat in the race, attorney Jim Toledano.
For the record, all three candidates claimed during their first forum in March that they had not done research into the private lives of their opponents and pledged not to do so.
But some of the background checks had already been done, in some cases by "free-lance" supporters or by those backing candidates who eventually dropped out of the race.
And while the candidates continue to promise not to engage in mudslinging, the "whisper campaigns" are getting louder, and all three expect that someone else's organization will fill voters' mailboxes with hit pieces in the final week before the election.
"It's a sad state when politics is decided in the last three days by who can put out the nastiest hit piece," said Reinecke, an attorney.
Hammond, an Irvine city councilman, said he believes the harsh campaigning got off to a quick start because there is little difference between the candidates on fiscal and regulatory issues, although Hammond and Reinecke oppose abortion rights while Brewer advocates them.
The early cross-fire means "someone is trying to make something happen," Hammond added.
Brewer agreed, saying the race "is certainly beginning to heat up."
During the first two months of the campaign, the contest was highlighted by numerous attacks that the three candidates said were not unfair tactics but valid efforts to show the differences between them.
"These are not hit pieces," Reinecke said of recent mail sent out on his behalf. "These are on issues."
Reinecke became the first "victim" when an unsigned mailer accused him of being sued for non-payment of an abortion allegedly performed on his girlfriend.
Reinecke himself brought the allegation out into the open and vehemently denied it. He said a court document accusing him of non-payment was the result of a mix-up with his insurance company over a bill related to an orthopedic injury.
During the same period, another anonymous mailer labeled Reinecke as a member of the California Trial Lawyers Assn., which is largely viewed by conservative Republicans as being anti-business. Opponents used as evidence Reinecke's half-page "personal injury" advertisement in the telephone business directory. Reinecke responded that he was erroneously listed on the trial lawyers' roster.
Brewer, a businesswoman and former aide to Board of Supervisors Chairman Thomas F. Riley, has been targeted by the most conservative factions of the local GOP because of her stand on abortion. The Reinecke camp has warned in its mailers that Brewer could win if the conservative vote splits between Reinecke and Hammond.
One Reinecke letter by Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) begins: "Dear protector of the pre-born." Another letter signed by Reinecke's father, former Lt. Gov. Ed Reinecke, who served with then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, criticizes Brewer for being a former Democrat.
Brewer responded that Reagan, as well as other prominent Republicans, were once Democrats and that the GOP would become "even more segregationist than it is now" if it tries to limit participation to only those "born into the party."
On another front, the Orange County Coordinating Republican Assembly, which has endorsed Reinecke, recently sent a letter to Hammond urging him to withdraw from the race. The group's chairman, Douglas H. Thomson, alleged that the Brewer campaign was about to derail Hammond's candidacy by releasing information about his "dubious financial dealings."
The letter referred to a 1991 personal bankruptcy filed by Hammond as well as a workers' compensation claim Hammond recently submitted to the city of Irvine after suffering a gash on his leg in an attack by a homeless man in Sacramento, where Hammond was testifying before a legislative panel.
Thomson, who said he discussed the letter with Reinecke before mailing it to Hammond, questioned whether the knifing actually occurred because Hammond did not file a police report.
Reinecke, however, said Thomson did not discuss the letter with him.
Reinecke said he does not think Hammond's bankruptcy should be an issue in the campaign, but he criticized Hammond for taking advantage of the workers' compensation system by filing the injury claim. Workers' compensation, Reinecke said, "is one of the problems facing small businesses. Mr. Hammond should lead by example and not automatically file a claim."
Hammond denied he had abused the workers' compensation system and said the bankruptcy had resulted from a combination of major medical emergencies that beset his family.
The Hammond campaign responded with a press release this week, claiming that Reinecke's campaign was in "disarray" and that Reinecke's political consultant, Steve Presson, had resigned after the Thomson letter was released.
Reinecke denied that Presson had resigned, but Presson confirmed that he quit the Reinecke campaign on April 29, the same date the Thomson letter was distributed. Presson would not elaborate, but he said his departure was unrelated to the attack letter.
Englander acknowledged that he had gathered the same information against Hammond but said he had not done anything with it.
The Brewer camp has not been sitting idly on the sidelines. It has accused Brewer's opponents of preparing to use false information against her.
In a letter delivered Wednesday to Hammond and Reinecke, Brewer's attorney threatened them with a lawsuit if they disseminate information about a tax lien having been filed against Brewer and her husband in 1985. The letter, from attorney Christopher L. Blank, stated that the lien was filed in error and immediately withdrawn.