The rematch between bitter rivals Robert K. Dornan and U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez this fall will feature a fresh twist--a public debate.
The campaigns of Dornan, a former congressman, and Sanchez, the Garden Grove Democrat who upset the conservative politician two years ago, said Wednesday that they will meet in at least one debate. Arrangements haven't been made yet.
The race is likely to be among the nation's most costly and volatile congressional matchups. It will be closely watched from local party headquarters to the halls of power in the nation's Capitol, where each party views the seat as attainable--and perhaps crucial for control of Congress.
The two began the rematch Wednesday doing what it will take to win: Sanchez flew to Washington to burnish her hard-working image and Dornan met with GOP leaders at a unity breakfast.
Earlier Dornan acknowledged part of the recipe for a strong challenge.
"Let me be humble and beg a little," he said. "I cannot bring this seat back into the victory column without my party."
That was evident from the results where he blew past three rivals, almost doubling their total vote. But that still left him with 26% of all votes cast and Sanchez with 44.7%.
Sanchez's team acknowledged that they too face a tough battle in what they called "a very competitive seat that will be competitive for years."
"It could be anybody's," said her spokesman, Lee Godown. "We take Mr. Dornan's candidacy very seriously."
Sanchez said she expected "a very nasty campaign," including "personal attacks and distortions of the truth against me." Dornan has wrongly charged, for instance, that Sanchez never voted before running for Congress. She vowed to run on her "record of service" and "continue to be very accessible to the residents of my district."
Dornan likewise accused Sanchez of running "a filthy campaign" two years ago and sending false, negative mailers that claimed he is pro-abortion, dodged the draft and bounced checks at the House bank.
The battleground in central Orange County could be critical to state politics as well, where the footprint of the 46th Congressional District largely overlaps several contested seats in the legislature.
Assemblyman Jim Morrissey (R-Santa Ana) avoided defeat by fewer than 100 votes two years ago and faces Democrat Lou Correa again. Perhaps most ominous for the GOP, state Sen. Rob Hurtt (R-Garden Grove) took only 53% of the total vote in the primary that matched him and Democrat Joe Dunn, who got 46%. Neither was opposed in their party, and now they run against each other in November.
Dornan's GOP rivals endorsed him. Republican county chairman Thomas A. Fuentes beamed while Dornan made his victory speech Wednesday night. Other local GOP leaders vowed to get behind Dornan, if for no other reason than to try to wipe out Sanchez's Democratic incursion into the county.
Nationally, the major parties are considering how much resources to expend on the race.
Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas), who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, viewed Dornan's win with glee and wondered aloud whether Dan Lungren and Matt Fong, GOP candidates for governor and Senate, respectively, will "appear on the same platform and be photographed with him."
"I was saying a little prayer for Dornan," Frost said. "I think Loretta will win by an even larger margin having him as an opponent. It helps us nationally because Dornan became such an unpopular figure with Hispanics around the country."
The National Republican Congressional Committee stopped short of saying it would fund the race, but called Sanchez vulnerable and her showing in the primary "pretty bad."
"People should not make the mistake of underestimating Bob Dornan," spokeswoman Mary Crawford said. "She only got 45% of the popular vote and she had no primary opponent."
The contest is already expensive. The two candidates each has raised around $2 million. That is still short of the record $6.1 million spent in 1992 in Santa Barbara, when erstwhile Texas oilman Michael Huffington won his only run for Congress.
While Sanchez is flush with cash--she has about $1 million on hand--Dornan's funds are nearly depleted. He raises most of his money through small, direct mail contributions. But that process is expensive. To raise large amounts from political action groups and others, he must show that he can win.
"He is looking at a $1-million gun pointed right at his head," Godown said.
Some conservative, anti-abortion groups are already weighing whether to make independent expenditures on Dornan's behalf, as are some Democratic groups, which would back Sanchez.
Michael Farber, who heads an independent expenditure committee called Beat Bob, is mailing an anti-Dornan fund-raising packet this week. On the other side, the anti-abortion, pro-family group Campaign for Working Families is carefully watching the race. It gave $5,000 to Dornan in the primary, though it spent as much as $250,000 earlier this year to help a central California Republican candidate, who lost in a special election.
Sanchez has become stronger in the past two years, earning points from many local officials for her accessibility and diligent staff work. She recently won the endorsement of the Garden Grove, Anaheim and Santa Ana police unions, which used to back Dornan.
She also relies on heavy support from Latinos. Many in that community were angered by Dornan's charge that her victory two years ago was aided by illegal votes cast by Latinos who were not yet citizens.
He is not conceding the Latino vote, though. He already has sent Latino voters graphic mailers decrying Sanchez votes rejecting a ban on partial birth abortion. During his victory speech at GOP headquarters in Irvine, he read a letter from a Latino woman praising him "as a man of God."
"We are going after that pro-family, pro-life, hard-working Hispanic American vote," he said.
Undaunted by the electoral spanking he took two years ago, Dornan rattled on during the occasionally bellicose victory speech. He quoted Teddy Roosevelt, talked about a Medal of Honor supporter and quoted from the Bible.
A few supporters shed tears of joy. Many cheered. But as he grew long-winded, others ignored him.
Times staff writers Jean O. Pasco and Faye Fiore contributed to this report.