In a stunning turnabout, Democrat Loretta Sanchez took a commanding lead over Republican Robert K. Dornan in the race for the 46th Congressional District after absentee ballots were counted Tuesday.
Sanchez, who trailed by 233 votes after the Nov. 5 election, moved 929 votes ahead of Dornan with only about 1,000 ballots left to count and appeared impossible to beat.
"Goliath has been slain and David, in the name of Loretta, is on the way to Washington," exclaimed Sanchez's campaign manager, John Shallman, moments after the numbers were released by the registrar of voters late in the afternoon.
Dornan, the fiery conservative who has held the seat for 12 years, conceded it would be extremely difficult to make up the vote deficit with the remaining ballots. But he had no intention of giving up his position, and said he would demand an investigation of the election process by the House Oversight Committee.
"I'm a little surprised at the number of ballots from Santa Ana," said Dornan, who spoke by telephone from home. He said he suspected large numbers of noncitizens voted.
Registrar Rosalyn Lever earlier said such widespread fraud was unlikely.
Chris Sautter, a consultant with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee who came to Orange County to observe the count, said Dornan's claims will not hold up.
"I think history is against him," he said.
Dornan is offering "just some vague allegations," he said. "For Congress to get involved at a level that would change the outcome of this election is highly unlikely."
But Dornan's wife and campaign manager, Sallie Dornan, said the race is not over.
"Bob is not about to concede and will have a recount," she said. "He may make up the difference."
The absentee count also closed the gap between Democrat Lou Correa and Republican incumbent Jim Morrissey in the 69th state Assembly District. Correa moved to within 308 votes of Morrissey. Morrissey had been leading by about 1,400 votes before Tuesday.
Supporters for Sanchez and Dornan had been waiting anxiously for a week as the registrar's office verified signatures and prepared to count tens of thousands of absentee ballots that arrived Monday and Tuesday of election week.
There were 68,000 late absentee ballots countywide, about 10,000 of which were in the 46th District. The registrar's office started the count Tuesday and didn't expect results until this afternoon. But at 4 p.m., Lever surprised the gathering of two dozen reporters and political observers, including several observers from Washington, with her announcement of Sanchez's lead.
About 9,000 absentee ballots were counted in the 46th District, Lever announced, leaving only about 1,000 in that district to be counted today. The new count, as of Tuesday night, had Sanchez leading with 46,270 votes to Dornan's 45,341.
As she spoke, Sanchez campaign manager Shallman shouted "Yes!" and hugged a friend, then immediately called Sanchez at home.
An hour later, Sanchez appeared at the office of her campaign chairman, Wylie A. Aitken, to champagne and loud applause from campaign workers and local Democratic party officials. She appeared to be numb with disbelief. "I think we won," she said in response to a question. "We did win, didn't we?" she asked a campaign worker.
House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) called Sanchez Tuesday evening and spoke to her for about five minutes. "It's great to be a Democrat in Orange County tonight," Sanchez told him. "We're really celebrating here."
Highlighting the importance of the Dornan-Sanchez race, President Clinton personally promoted her candidacy at a Santa Ana rally in mid-October. Sanchez introduced the president, and he shook her hand as television cameras rolled to the applause of thousands.
Just one day before the election, Clinton sent two cabinet members, Transportation Secretary Federico Pena and Henry G. Cisneros, secretary of housing and urban development, to another Santa Ana rally intended to get out the Latino vote.
Sanchez said she planned to be in Washington on Thursday for the orientation of freshmen members of Congress.
Meanwhile, Dornan appeared determined to continue the fight to keep his seat. He said Sanchez "ran a dirty campaign and she is unqualified."
"I want an investigation from the House Oversight Committee to interview the people who registered wrongly and find out [how] they registered," he said.
In Washington, Craig Vieth, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, which spent $60,000 on Dornan's campaign in the final two weeks before the election, said late Tuesday that he had not heard from Dornan and could not comment.
But when he learned of Sanchez's lead, Vieth was surprised.
"We have taken steps in a number of races, including this one, to make sure races are not stolen," he said. "It's a close race, so it's not over yet."
Orange County developer Buck Johns, a member of the conservative Lincoln Club and a top contributor to state and local Republican campaigns, called Sanchez's apparent win a "major upset" and said Dornan's campaign was "less than effective."
"I think it's in order to offer congratulations to Ms. Sanchez," Johns said. "It was the year of the Democrats. But we'll be back in 24 months to see if we can't right this ship."
Not surprisingly, Art Torres, former state senator from Los Angeles and chairman of the California Democratic Party, read the results differently. "Dornan's meanness and anger finally caught up with him," Torres said. "Loretta Sanchez deserves this victory."
"It is also a victory for the people of Orange County, and with President Clinton increasing his 1992 margin of 31.6% in Orange County to 37.8% this time, the Sanchez victory is one more sign the Democratic Party is off the life-support system in Orange County."
Sanchez strategists had targeted absentee voters in the final weeks of the campaign, as part of a coordinated effort with the Clinton-Gore and Correa campaigns. The three campaigns spent $75,000 to encourage voters to use absentee ballots.
"We made a pretty strong push in the last week to identify absentee ballot Democrats who said they would vote for Sanchez and get them to turn in their ballots," said Sanchez campaign manager Shallman. "We called them and got a lot of response. A couple of thousand turned them in."
Sanchez supporters had long pinned their hopes on a get-out-the-vote effort that flooded precincts on election day with hundreds of volunteers--many bilingual.
Other volunteers urged first-time registered voters who weren't sure whether their names had made it onto the voting rolls to go to their polling places anyway and demand "provisional ballots."
Provisional ballots are cast by voters who assert they are wrongly omitted from precinct lists, or by those who said they lost their absentee ballots. People who show proof that they lived in the precinct but failed to re-register also can cast provisional ballots.
Lever said about 15,000 to 20,000 provisional ballots were cast countywide, but she did not know how many were from the 46th District. Those ballots will be counted within 10 days.
Also contributing to this report were Times staff writers Matt Lait, Lee Romney and Gebe Martinez.