It's a political prize coveted by both major parties, a congressional seat discussed more often by Democratic and Republican strategists in Washington than by the voters deciding who sits there.
Seven Democratic candidates are competing for a chance to fill the seat soon to be vacated by a venerable Democratic congressman, Anthony C. Beilenson of Woodland Hills.
So are three Republicans, including one candidate who came close to bouncing Beilenson from office in a close election two years ago.
Although most voters have yet to focus on these candidates, party strategists are keeping close watch. They see the 24th Congressional District race as one of the pivotal contests this year that could determine which party controls the House of Representatives.
"We absolutely want to hold this seat," said Tricia Primrose of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "It is a very important part of the equation to win back a [Democratic] majority in the House."
The National Republican Congressional Committee has also targeted the oddly shaped district that resembles a giant bird, its wings outstretched from Thousand Oaks to Van Nuys, its body perched along the Malibu coast.
"This is an area of enormous opportunity for the Republican Party," GOP committee spokesman Craig Veith said. "This is a seat which we look to gain and strengthen our majority."
Both committees are prepared to lavish as much as $60,000 on their party's nominees, as soon as one emerges victorious from the March 26 primary.
With the primary only 16 days away, candidates are scrambling to reach as many of their party faithful as they can--all except Rich Sybert.
Sybert is banking on the name recognition he built up during the last election when he spent about $1 million--half of it his own money--to slug his way through a hotly contested Republican primary and then come within 3,536 votes of unseating the 20-year incumbent.
Unlike last time, Sybert's primary opponents have yet to mount an aggressive challenge:
Stephen C. Brecht
Brecht, an estate planner from Woodland Hills, portrays himself as "a real, live political outsider," with a conservative agenda closely aligned with the Republicans' Contract With America. Brecht acknowledges his campaign's limited reach. "I'm pretty much doing it all by myself."
K. Paul Jhin
Jhin, a Republican from Malibu, has thrown himself into the race with great passion to give something back to a country that has given him so much.
A Korean native who emigrated to the United States in 1955, Jhin has made the crackdown on illegal immigration a center point of his campaign: "Rather than having our troops in Bosnia, we ought to have our troops in California protecting our borders from immigrants trying to sneak in."
Sybert, meanwhile, has already begun positioning himself to appeal to all voters in November, not just the hard-core partisan Republicans expected to vote in the March primary.
It's smart politics, his friends and advisors say, in a congressional district with more registered Democrats than Republicans and during a time when polls show House Speaker Newt Gingrich with a higher public disapproval rating than President Richard Nixon had at the time of his resignation.
Sybert's political brochure stresses his independence and commitment to the community to fight for a fair and balanced budget, public safety and immigration reform. It mentions the word "Republican" only once, in small type, on the back flap.
"I am not a blind follower of any party," Sybert said in a recent interview. "I very much dislike the assumption that because you are a Republican or a Democrat, you are going to be marching lock-step to some piper offstage. I don't plan to go off to Washington as anybody's foot soldier."
At the same time, Sybert called himself "a loyal Republican and a conservative. I don't want people to think I'm equivocating or shilly-shallying."
The Democratic primary campaign has been a much more spirited affair, with seven candidates jockeying for position to become Beilenson's political heir.
To squeals of protest from his rivals, Sherman has managed to lock up most of the major endorsements from Democratic Party leaders and officeholders.
"I'm supporting him," Beilenson said last week. "I hope that Brad Sherman wins."
Sherman successfully courted Democratic leaders by arguing that he is the only proven candidate. He won a second term on the State Board of Equalization in 1994. And he has shown a willingness to pony up his own money. So far, he has loaned his campaign $275,000.
His campaign is preparing a flurry of political mailers to deliver the message that he has the experience to take on Gingrich, that he is a strong advocate for political reform and a champion for the middle class. And that he can win.
In a letter sent to Democratic voters last week, U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer said "both parties are making all-out efforts to win this crucial seat in November. Fortunately, we have an outstanding Democratic candidate with the experience and integrity to win in November. That candidate is Brad Sherman."
Yet Sherman's anointed status has drawn fire from his Democratic competitors. They snipe at him at political forums and complain to each other about his party connections.
Lipow, an Encino attorney and businessman, has already sent one attack mailer, calling Sherman "just another professional politician."
The colorful pamphlet mentions how Sherman filed to run for four offices in 1994 before settling on his Board of Equalization seat. And now he is running for Congress.
"Can we trust him to stand and fight for our interests, or will he just cut and run . . . for the next plum political job that comes along?" the mailer asks.
Sherman called Lipow's mailer "a desperation shot." He said it has turned off many Democrats who have called his office to complain.
Lipow's own literature portrays him as a fighter, someone who will "fight Newt Gingrich and his radical agenda which would cut education, dismantle the Clean Air and Water Acts, take away a woman's right to choose and destroy Medicare."
He takes that zeal for combat into the Democratic primary too. He said he's in the race to win, pumping $50,000 of his own money into the race and raising another $100,000. He has hired professional consultants, planted 1,200 signs around the district, and plans to spend $300,000 on the primary.
On a recent Saturday at his campaign office, Lipow could not restrain his glee as pages of Sherman's old campaign finance reports unfurled on his fax machine.
One page showed how Sherman last year received a $400 donation from H.F. Ahmanson & Co., the developer that wants to build a mini-city on the Ahmanson Ranch in the Simi Hills.
The proposed development has drawn strong protests and lawsuits from Calabasas and other communities fearing a deluge of traffic from new residents swamping their roadways.
"I can't believe it," Lipow said. "This is the hottest thing in the race. By the time I'm done with them, every voter is going to know about them. They are going to get mailings."
Wiesbrock, director of Save Open Space in Agoura Hills, said a donation from Ahmanson could hurt a local congressional candidate. But she said the environmental group has never become involved in a congressional race, though it has been active in races for city and county offices.
"It would be up to the board of directors," she said, noting that Sherman attended a Save Ahmanson Ranch fund-raiser earlier this month.
Sherman said he opposes the development. "I have no friends who are involved in the development of the Ahmanson Ranch," he said. "Clearly, the Ahmanson company is making a mistake trying to develop that ranch property."
Sherman said he received the donation to help with his 1994 campaign debt from someone in the company who, he said, believed he was doing a good job on the Board of Equalization. The board rules on personal and corporate tax appeals and oversees the collection and distribution of sales, gas and cigarette taxes.
Not all the Democratic contenders are focused on publicly bashing Sherman.
"I'm not going to attack, I'm going to stay positive," said Jordan, a communications professor at Pepperdine University.
Jordan is putting the finishing touches on a political mailer that teases the reader with the famous basketball player who shares the candidate's name: "You know Michael Jordan is a real winner," the political mailer says. "But did you know that Michael Jordan could be your congressman?"
He does not know if his household name will play to his advantage in the voting booth, particularly among voters with few impressions of the candidates. "It's a wild card in this race," he said.
Jordan has been promoting himself as a common-sense candidate who will rise above partisan bickering and extremist agendas to improve education, public safety and environment.
He is the first candidate to bring star power into the race. Fellow Malibu resident Martin Sheen did a benefit performance of the play "Love Letters" for Jordan's campaign at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza. The two men met while standing in line at the post office and hit it off.
The energetic Jordan has also tapped a wealth of talent from Pepperdine, from political science professors to help with strategy to student volunteers who have been walking precincts, taking the Jordan campaign door-to-door. "It really doesn't take that much money to run a congressional race," he said.
Knipe, a recently retired law office administrator, has also resorted to ingenuity to mount a thrifty campaign that promotes her experience as a congressional aide on Capitol Hill in the 1960s and 1970s.
"I'm the only one with congressional experience," said Knipe, whose 2,000 red, white and blue signs dot the district. "I know Washington pretty well."
She and her husband, a retired lawyer, put together about two dozen 30-second television ads that have been airing on cable TV for weeks.
In the ads, the bespectacled Knipe discusses her positions on everything from getting tough on crime to preserving environmental laws. Much of her campaigning has been face-to-face contact with voters by walking precincts.
"People recognize my name," Knipe said. "We've made a connection with cable ads and the signs."
Candidate Charouhas (pronounced Cha-ROO-has), who was scheduling director for Jerry Brown when he ran for president in 1992, has been pushing her ideas about political finance reform on the Internet as well as through usual campaign strategies.
She is also trying to raise donations through her home page on the World Wide Web (http://www.PublicTrust.com). Like her political mentor, she refuses PAC money and will only accept donations of $100 or less.
"At this moment, my opponents are busy raising big dollars from wealthy donors," she writes in her web site. " . . . If they are elected, they'll owe paychecks to their wealthiest donors. That's the name of the game, but it's a game that has corrupted politics and we can't afford to play it any longer."
Pash, a certified financial planner in Encino, is stressing his economic vision for the next century in his bid for the congressional seat. He has written a 14-page treatise on restructuring the government's monetary system. He argues that if Congress pushes a conservative fiscal policy, it must also push a liberal monetary policy to help raise capital for new businesses, jobs and technology.
"What our party needs to do is send someone to Congress to debate the Republicans about their economic policies, which are wrong," he said. "I'm one of those people who can debate them on economic grounds."
Also running is a Democratic candidate who is listed on the ballot as Craig "Tax Freeze" Freis. A perennial candidate, he had his name legally changed so it would signal his aversion to taxes.