Gov. Pete Wilson on Thursday set the date for a special election to choose a replacement for former state Sen. Marian Bergeson, setting the stage for an anticipated battle between three longtime California lawmakers.
Wilson set the election for March 14, with a runoff scheduled for May 9 if no candidate manages to get more than 50% of the vote in the first contest.
Candidates have until Jan. 30 to file for the election to succeed Bergeson, a Newport Beach Republican who retired after 16 years in the Legislature to take a post on the Orange County Board of Supervisors.
But most Capitol insiders fully expect the race to come down to a long-awaited three-way match up between former Assemblyman Gil Ferguson, a Newport Beach Republican who retired from the lower house last year, Assemblyman Ross Johnson (R-Placentia) and Assemblywoman Doris Allen (R-Cypress).
Heading into the contest, Johnson appears to have a decided edge in campaign clout. He has earned the backing of most Sacramento Republicans and has amassed a war chest of more than $200,000. He also enjoys the support of Bergeson, who has long been privately at odds with Ferguson.
But the conservative Johnson could be vulnerable to attack as a carpetbagger because he is not a resident of the 35th Senatorial District and has yet to establish a concrete identity in the sophisticated, well-heeled coastal enclaves that provide Republicans with votes on Election Day.
Ferguson, a Balboa Island resident, is much more a household name, but his problem could be getting enough money to reach voters and foment the sort of effective absentee ballot effort that can prove so pivotal in special elections, which typically feature low voter turnout.
He also has gotten heat for press reports that he proved instrumental in persuading Assemblyman Paul Horcher to reject the Republican Party and vote for Willie Brown as Assembly speaker. Ferguson has vehemently rejected those charges and in recent weeks has donated both time and money to the effort to recall Horcher.
While the two men duke it out, Allen could prove the spoiler. She played just that role in 1992 when she bested former Republican Assemblymen Nolan Frizzelle and Tom Mays in a three-way battle for her current seat, which had been reconfigured by reapportionment so the trio all lived in the same district.