Take the incumbent out of an Orange County Assembly primary, hold the election in the most Republican district in California and this is the result: A wide-open campaign featuring five strong GOP candidates.
The 71st Assembly District, where Assemblyman Mickey Conroy (R-Orange) is stepping down because of term limits and to run for county supervisor, is the heart of Republican territory. This sprawling district extends from Ortega Highway in the south all the way north to just past the Riverside Freeway.
It is 57.4% Republican, virtually guaranteeing a comfortable seat in the Capitol for the victor in the March 26 primary.
"The winner will be the one who executes his campaign the best," said Jim Beam, a former Orange mayor who is considered one of the favorites, along with wealthy political newcomer Bill Campbell of Villa Park and Lake Forest Mayor Richard Thomas Dixon. "We are all pretty close to lock-step philosophically, on the issues."
Another theory is that the favorites will spend their efforts on infighting, allowing a lesser-known candidate to sneak by with a victory.
"I think they will spend their money beating each other up," said Steve Cardona of Tustin, another political newcomer who, like Campbell, is a member of the conservative Lincoln Club of Orange County.
Adding spice to the campaign is Larry F. Sternberg of Tustin, who is running a shoestring campaign but is in the race to offer voters a different take on the issues.
"I'm running to get my point across," said Sternberg, who wants to end the war on drugs--making the drug problem a health issue rather than a crime issue--and change the way campaigns are financed. He does not ask supporters for contributions.
"I think people are tired and disgusted with all the money that's being spent," he said. "I don't see any direct connection between the quality of the candidate and the money they spend."
Like it or not, the money the well-heeled candidates are spending is considerable.
The big spenders, Beam and Campbell, are expecting to put out about $300,000 each, with the candidates themselves kicking in $90,000 and $50,000 respectively.
Beam, 61, a real estate developer and veteran of several Orange County political wars, jumped into the campaign first, more than a year ago, and gathered some key endorsements, including those of Supervisor William G. Steiner and former Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez, both Orange neighbors of his, and Sheriff Brad Gates.
But the most important endorsement Beam received, according to his political consultant, Wayne C. Johnson, was that of former Rep. William E. Dannemeyer (R-Fullerton).
"Our surveys show that Dannemeyer's support was far and away above everybody else," said Johnson, a Sacramento-based consultant. "We are dealing with primary voters here who are older and tend to be more conservative."
Johnson is not shy about making predictions. He said Beam's strong conservative views, plus his longtime ties to the greater Orange area, will prevail.
"Jim Beam is going to win this race," he said.
That is not an opinion shared by Campbell and his consultant, Irvine-based Mark Thompson. For endorsements, Campbell has won the backing of, among others, Conroy, Assemblymen Dick Ackerman (R-Fullerton) and Jim Morrissey (R-Anaheim) and state Sen. Rob Hurtt (R-Garden Grove), the Republican leader of the upper house and a man known as a kingmaker in state politics.
Campbell, 53, the owner of 12 Taco Bell restaurants, said he is trying overcome his lack of name recognition by selling himself on four concepts: integrity, endorsements, experience and enthusiasm.
"I tell people what you see is what you get with Bill Campbell," said Campbell, who has been active in the Parents' Guild at Mater Dei High School. "My experience is one of raising a family and running a business that employs more than 200 people."
Name recognition and his South County base are two things that Dixon is banking on. The Lake Forest mayor has been out front in the media for months championing Measure S, the initiative that would overturn the 1994 vote for a commercial airport at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.
"I'm the only true South County candidate," said Dixon, 47, a self-employed health insurance broker. "I don't need to spend $300,000."
Dixon's opponents say his stand in favor of abortion rights makes him too liberal for this conservative district, a notion he rejects. He has been endorsed by the California Teachers Assn., which contributed $5,000 to his campaign.
"I represent a generation of Republicans who are entrenched in Republican politics but are not afraid to talk to the Democrats to find a consensus and move forward on issues," said Dixon, adding that Lake Forest, with only 24 full-time employees on the city staff, leads all Orange County cities in privatization of services.
"All the things that all the other candidates are talking about, I'm already doing," Dixon said.
Cardona, 39, of Tustin, a marketing consultant who has been busy "working in the trenches" by walking door to door, makes a similar claim. He will put his successful business experience to work in Sacramento, he said.
"I will take what I've been doing in the private sector--helping companies grow and creating jobs--and do the same on the public sector side," said Cardona, who is backed by economist Arthur Laffer. "Taco Bell jobs are not the kind of jobs we need to be creating in Sacramento. We need more high-tech jobs."
He also takes Dixon's regional argument a step further, claiming he is the only candidate "who can bridge the gap" between North County and South County.
Sternberg, 68, the chief financial officer of a computer firm and a former congressional candidate, is a longtime member of the Tustin unit of the California Republican Assembly and as conservative as the others, although he has his own ideas on how to deal with issues such as drug abuse and abortion.
Sternberg said he opposes abortion rights but does not believe the issue "should be a litmus test for a candidate." The drug problem is being handled wrongly, he said.
"About 50% of all our crime is drug-related," Sternberg said. "We need to treat drug addicts as medical problems and get them out of the jails and court system. If one of your children was hooked, how would you want them treated?"
Sternberg is relying on candidate forums and television and newspaper interviews to get his points across and has not sought endorsements.
The 71st District includes all of the cities of Mission Viejo and Villa Park and the communities of Rancho Santa Margarita, Coto de Caza and Trabuco Hills, as well as most of Orange and Lake Forest. Small parts of San Juan Capistrano, Irvine, Anaheim, Santa Ana and Tustin are also in the district.
Democrat Jack Roberts of Orange, a union official, is unopposed in his party's primary.
* CANDIDATES AT A GLANCE
Where the Republican hopefuls stand on Measure S, abortion and gun control. B3