Democratic congressional candidate Steve Clute is waiting his turn at the local Rotary Club podium and it must be killing him that the remarks by his Republican opponent are being interrupted by laughs and applause.

Erstwhile entertainer Sonny Bono is spending the first four minutes of his opening remarks regaling the Rotarians about Hollywood, throwing in one-liners about Cher and wisecracking about playing second fiddle to a midget on "Fantasy Island." Clearly, Bono is a successful distraction from the chicken cacciatore and steamed vegetables.

Clute, 45, a naval aviator before turning to state politics 12 years ago, is going to have a tough act to follow.

Bono, too, has had to follow an act--his own, in which he was cast by skeptics as comic relief to serious office-holding. But despite the failure his last time out as a candidate for high office, Bono has emerged as the acknowledged front-runner in the race for Congress from eastern Riverside County.

It is the latest--and perhaps most unlikely--role for Bono, who during 25 years in show business invited the derision of his fans, starting with his days as the bell-bottomed straight man to his singing partner, Cher, to most recently playing the patsy mayor of Metropolis in "Lois and Clark: The Adventures of Superman."

Even as he segued into politics and was elected the real-life mayor of Palm Springs in 1988, Bono's currency continued as celebrity, and he signed more autographs than proclamations. He boasts that two of his greatest accomplishments were in bringing an international film festival to the desert resort town and taming lawless college students during spring break.

When he ran for his party's nomination for the U.S. Senate in 1992, he was roundly dismissed as a political oddity by voters and was easy pickings for reporters. Asked what his feelings were on foreign trade and the trade deficit, he answered: "That's a tricky one," and promised to study it.

When Bono toyed with the notion of running for California lieutenant governor in the most recent primary, Gov. Pete Wilson's staff suggested in so many words that he take his political ambitions elsewhere.

The question, then, was whether Bono could be taken seriously for any high-profile office, either by Republican bigwigs or by the voters.

But buoyed by a convincing primary victory in June over a popular Riverside County supervisor, Bono's troubled transition to politics is now approaching its most dramatic turn. Adopted by the Republican Party, he believes he has hit upon the formula for election to Congress.

Besides his party's support, he has name identity. He has money--$500,000 is his campaign goal including his own funds, about twice what Clute hopes to raise. And he is running for a seat being vacated by a Republican, veteran Al McCandless, in a congressional district that has voted Republican for years--the 44th, which includes such tony communities as Rancho Mirage, Palm Springs and Palm Desert as well as the suburbs around Riverside.

Conceded a Democratic Party consultant to Clute's campaign: "We're going against the tide in this one. We're going to have a tough time."

From one speaking engagement to the next, the 59-year-old Bono thumps his campaign message like some incessant tambourine: elect me, not some professional politician, to bring conservative common sense to Congress. I'll take a hatchet to the federal budget. And as the celebrity, gee-whiz congressman, I'll attract media attention to my constituents' issues.

"If anyone is bewildered by my candidacy, it's the Establishment," Bono says. After all, here is a man seeking national office who did not register to vote until he was 52, and who, in his autobiography, concedes that he flitted about with women during his Hollywood years. Not exactly blue-blood Republican stock.

But because Republicans are looking to cash in on President Clinton's midterm political weaknesses, they can only embrace Bono's curious audition to join the Republican chorus line in Washington. Such party kingpins as former New York Rep. Jack Kemp, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas and former Secretary of Education William Bennett are stumping for him, even if local Republicans--who know Bono more intimately--are not as effusive.

"If I had my way, there'd be a write-in--'none of the above,' " said Walt Snyder, a Republican and Palm Desert city councilman. "We don't need a laughingstock up there."

Indeed, in the June primary, Bono had trouble winning credibility in some corners. He lost in his own town to the county supervisor who also lives there; his four-year term as Palm Springs mayor generated decidedly mixed reviews amid criticism that celebrity citizen Bono became part of the very bureaucratic Establishment he sought to dismantle.

"Name identity is only valuable if it's positive, but his is as much negative as positive," said Paul Kinney, a Clute campaign consultant. Nearly a third of the people polled by Clute's camp agreed with a campaign suggestion that Bono's candidacy was "a joke," Kinney said.

To win Republican support for his own candidacy, Clute is touting himself as an independent who failed to win his party's endorsement in the primary. Before it was reapportioned, the state Assembly district that he represented from 1982 to 1992 covered about half of the congressional district he now seeks to represent, and he hopes the voters have not forgotten him.

If elected, Clute said he will use his office to help local small businesses.

Bono talks more generally about how federal regulations hamstring the overall economy. "I hate bureaucracy," he says everywhere he goes. "It's a creature that lives off itself."

He professes grandly about how he would like to dismantle as many as 40 federal agencies that he says are redundant or impinge on state or local governments.

Clute says Bono is a political neophyte who is taking on more than he can chew; Bono says Clute will be mauled inside Washington as another "conveyor-belt" politician.

Voters are entertained by Bono's candidacy, even if they are not sure how seriously to take him.

"You listen to him talk and you wonder why anybody would vote for this guy," said Marvin Roos at a Rancho Mirage forum where both candidates spoke to developers. "But there's an amazing affection for Sonny because of how he presents himself. He's so unpolished."

Republican Rep. Chris Cox of Orange County says Bono's outsider's approach to Washington is endearing, and belies the fact that he has extensively boned up on national policy issues since his Senate race two years ago.

"He's more effective in engaging voters in the substantive issues that are important to the country today than most members of Congress," Cox said. "A lot of people in Congress can do the inside-the-Beltway talk, but people's eyes start to glaze over. Sonny has a unique capacity to take complex subjects . . . and relate them to workaday folks."

Bruce Herschensohn, the conservative television commentator who beat Bono and Tom Campbell in the 1992 Republican primary for Senate--only to lose to Democrat Dianne Feinstein--became so smitten with Bono's simplified approach to politics that he became Bono's campaign chairman.

"A lot of people have asked me, what if he wins? How'd he fit in?" Herschensohn said. "Well, he wouldn't, and that's exactly why I want him there. He's not like the other . . . politicians who look the same, talk the same, answer the same and, when you've heard them, you're not sure what they've said. You always know what Sonny said."

When asked for his position on illegal immigration, for instance, Bono often responds simply, after a pregnant pause: "I don't know what there is to discuss about it. It's illegal."

Clute chides Bono for posturing as the simple candidate, the outsider looking in. By way of contrast, Clute said, "I'll address real problems with real solutions," whereas if Bono is elected, "his office will be run by high-priced staff people."

But Bono says he will play the part of politician as his most serious role yet--even if he risks overstating what he hopes to accomplish.

"I've been around the block a few times, done a lot, and have had a pretty good time doing it. Now if I can go out, contributing to mankind's survival, then that would be pretty nice."

For the Record Los Angeles Times Thursday September 29, 1994 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Column 5 Metro Desk 2 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction Herschensohn opponent--An article in Wednesday's editions about the campaign in the 44th Congressional District misidentified Republican Bruce Herschensohn's opponent in his unsuccessful 1992 Senate race. Herschensohn ran against Barbara Boxer.
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