Former Rep. Robert K. Dornan, who lost his seat in 1996 after 18 years as a feisty and flamboyant voice for American conservatism, has bypassed a congressional race many believed he could have won and "passed the torch" to his son Mark, who will run instead.
Mark Dornan, 40, pulled candidacy papers Wednesday for an open congressional seat in South County for which his father had been considering running. The seat is held by Rep. Ron Packard (R-Oceanside), who is retiring when his term expires at the end of 2000.
Dornan's son said his father wanted to concentrate on the new, three-hour "Bob Dornan Show" on Talk Radio Network, and on his 11 grandchildren. The decision was endorsed by Sallie Dornan, an active participant in her husband's many campaigns.
"To quote John F. Kennedy, the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans born in the second half of this century," the elder Dornan, 66, said from his Virginia home. "Mark is two years younger than I was when I first ran for Congress, and he's seen this world as I never did at his age."
It was a race some thought the elder Dornan had a strong chance of winning in the heavily Republican district, which is half in Orange County and half in San Diego and Riverside counties. Votes are expected to be split among at least seven GOP candidates who have filed papers, as well as five other candidates. The filing deadline is Dec. 10.
Some activists lamented the seeming political retirement by Dornan, whose spunk and tenacity guaranteed to liven any race, but said it was time for him to move on.
"It's a big decision for Bob, and I think it's the right decision," GOP strategist Ken Khachigian of San Clemente said. "It's a sign that he's realized he's had a wonderful career. It's a rare politician who knows when it's time to pack it in."
As for Mark Dornan's chances, Khachigian said he "wouldn't bet money" on who might win, given the strengths of each of the major candidates. The elder Dornan said he will act as fund-raiser for his son's campaign, activating a prodigious national fund-raising base.
Strong campaigns are expected from well-funded car alarm magnate Darrell Issa of San Diego and well-connected Assemblyman Bill Morrow (R-Carlsbad). Peter Kouvelis, a former Marine from Dana Point, is the leading Democratic candidate.
Wednesday's announcement ended speculation that Dornan, who narrowly lost his central Orange County congressional seat in 1996 to Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Santa Ana), was hoping to revive his political career. Though he won the GOP primary in his former district in 1998, he lost again to Sanchez, this time by a wider margin. More recently, he was considering running for the Packard seat and against Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach).
"He's so happy--he's out across America and on the radio," said the younger Dornan, who worked on all 11 of his father's political campaigns, including two stints as congressional campaign manager and one as spokesman for his father's presidential run in 1998.
"This caps half of my life of living in Orange County pushing the conservative message," Mark Dornan said of his first try as a candidate. "My head is spinning, but I feel really confident."
Mark Dornan has been living in Los Angeles but recently moved to San Juan Capistrano, where he will be married Saturday to Anna Marie Dare of Garden Grove. Last year, he obtained his teaching credential and hopes to begin teaching in San Juan Capistrano.
He previously worked as a consultant for a property management company in Los Angeles, and joined his father for his political campaigns. His ballot title will be teacher/management consultant.
Democratic activist John Hanna said Mark Dornan's limited residency in South County will hurt him in a race where local ties are important to many voters. He said Mark Dornan is mirroring a move from Los Angeles County to Orange County by his father in 1984 in his successful challenge to Democratic Rep. Jerry Patterson.
"Bob Dornan registered to vote at the Holiday Inn in Buena Park, so I guess Mark's following in the family tradition," Hanna said.
Despite his father's strong Republican ties over two decades, ties which were strained after his loss to Sanchez, Mark Dornan said he comes to the race without being tied to special interests or to GOP rainmakers. The Lincoln Club of Orange County, a prestigious fund-raising organization, endorsed a Republican challenger against his father in the 1998 rematch with Sanchez.
"People might play 'sins of the father' some, but if they do, it'll only hurt them," Mark Dornan said. "I start with a clean slate."
Lincoln Club president Michael Capaldi said Mark Dornan is welcome in the race.
"We encourage competition and we want to have a vigorous primary," Capaldi said. "The Lincoln Club doesn't get involved in primaries except in extraordinary occasions, and [Robert Dornan's 1998 campaign] was extraordinary because we were uncomfortable with what he represented in the race."
Said David Wilson, spokesman for Morrow's campaign: "We look forward to every candidate debating their issues, no matter what their backgrounds are or where they're from."
Other candidates who have pulled papers for the race include Republicans Edward Mayerhofer of Lakewood, Joe Snyder of Capistrano Beach, Don Eudall of Corona del Mar and William D. Griffiths of Oceanside. The other Democratic candidate joining Kouvelis is Richard Maguire of Dana Point. The remaining field includes Joe Michael Cobb, a Libertarian from Dana Point, Sharon Miles of Laguna Niguel for the Natural Law party, and Eddie Rose, a former Laguna Niguel council member running for the Reform party.
Also contributing to this report was Times staff writer Faye Fiore in Washington.