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Dornan Picks Fight on New Turf

Times Staff Writer

Arch-conservative Robert K. Dornan, whose trenchant rhetoric earned him the nickname “Mouth of the House” during his 18 years in Congress, filed papers this week to take on Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) in the March primary.

Dornan, who lost his central Orange County seat to Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) in 1996 and failed again in a 1998 rematch, paid a $1,547 filing fee Wednesday. He has until 5 p.m. today to submit 40 to 60 signatures from registered voters in the 46th Congressional District, an area Rohrabacher has represented since 1988.

Rohrabacher said he hoped Dornan wouldn’t follow through with the threat, which echoed one Dornan made in 1991. Dornan didn’t return calls Thursday seeking comment.

“Bob has every right to run anyplace he wants to,” Rohrabacher said. “I’m just sorry he seems to be fixated on me.”

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By targeting Rohrabacher’s district for a political comeback, Dornan continues a strategy of chasing conservative votes, having been chased out of two other districts where increasingly Democratic voters turned against him.

Rohrabacher predicted that Dornan wouldn’t be welcomed by his GOP voters. The coastal district stretches from Palos Verdes Estates in Los Angeles County to Newport Beach in Orange County. Voters there prefer a “positive conservative spirit” from their lawmakers, Rohrabacher said. “Bob’s conservatism comes from a more negative and bygone era.”

Dornan’s plan to re-enter politics -- after spending the last seven years broadcasting a radio show from his home in Virginia -- surprised observers who figured that at 70, Dornan had retired from campaigning.

The move says more about Dornan, they said, than about any further swing to the right in Orange County, which has become more diverse politically in his absence. The county, for example, voted heavily in October for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger rather than the more conservative GOP candidate, Tom McClintock.

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Dornan’s “time has come and gone,” said John J. Pitney Jr., professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and author of “The Art of Political Warfare.”

“He had a following in his home district, but after the losses to Sanchez, he’s yesterday’s news,” Pitney said. “It’s kind of a shame. He’s an ink junkie, and he needs his fix.”

If Dornan mounts a serious campaign, it would bleed money from Rohrabacher that the incumbent could have raised and sent to other primary races, said longtime political strategist Ken Khachigian. “I’d much rather see him run against Loretta,” he said.

Sanchez said simply, “Bob’s got to stop.”

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At the height of his House career, Dornan was known as a fiery ideologue who said what he thought, regardless of political correctness. Supporters applauded his bluntness and bite; opponents saw him as a loose cannon whose extreme views alienated voters and colleagues.

During a 1992 primary race, for example, he blurted to a television interviewer that “every lesbian spear-chucker in this country is hoping I get defeated.” He scuffled with one colleague in 1985 after the man objected to Dornan calling him a “draft-dodging wimp.”

He chastised former President Clinton for being an adulterer and for jogging in “silk, girlie-girlie” shorts that displayed his “white, doughboy thighs.”

During a Dornan tirade on the House floor, Democratic House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill remarked, “Dornan, you need a psychiatrist.”

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But the California congressman, a former Air Force pilot, was widely appreciated by the aerospace industry as an ardent supporter of military spending, winning him the sobriquet “B-1 Bob.”

Dornan won his first congressional seat in 1976, representing West Los Angeles and Santa Monica, after hosting a Los Angeles television talk show. A former B-movie and television actor, Dornan had appeared in the 1960s television series “12 O’Clock High.” His uncle Jack Haley was best known as the Tin Man in “The Wizard of Oz.”

After Dornan’s district was redrawn, making it more Democratic, he ran unsuccessfully in 1982 for the U.S. Senate and then looked to move to a safer seat. In 1984, he set his sights on a coastal congressional district stretching through Huntington Beach represented by five-term Democratic Rep. Jerry Patterson.

Claiming a local motel as his residence, Dornan beat Patterson by a margin of eight percentage points after outspending him by more than $300,000. He and his wife, Sallie, bought a house in Garden Grove, which they still own and where they’re registered to vote. The district was split after a 1991 reapportionment, and Dornan followed the new 47th District in central Orange County, where he counted on his incumbency to nurture support despite a less conservative, blue-collar constituency.

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He was reelected in 1992 and 1994 but lost in ’96 to Sanchez as the district grew more Democratic. He lost again in 1998.

Dornan has a nostalgic following among some of Orange County’s most conservative activists -- but they also count Rohrabacher as a friend, said Brian Park, former state chairman of the ultraconservative Young Americans for Freedom. The battle probably will split conservatives, he said.

And though the two hold many of the same political views, a personal rivalry between Dornan and Rohrabacher, 56, has existed for years.

In November 1998, Dornan criticized Rohrabacher and Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) for failing to help him enough in his campaign. At an election night party sponsored by the Orange County GOP, a shoving match erupted in the crowd after Dornan took to the microphone and blamed other Republicans for his loss to Sanchez.

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As the gathering broke up, Bob Dornan Jr. walked up to Rohrabacher and repeated a profanity-laden charge that Rohrabacher and Cox hadn’t done enough to help his father. The junior Dornan vowed that he and his brother, Mark, would run against the two veteran congressmen in 2000. They didn’t.

A month later, Dornan announced that he had hired pollsters to gauge his election chances in districts represented by Rohrabacher, Cox, Rep. Ron Packard (R-Carlsbad) and Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton). “I think Congress is a lesser place with me not there,” he said.

This week’s decision to run against Rohrabacher harks back to 1991 when Dornan stunned Republican leaders by announcing that he intended to run against Rohrabacher. His congressional seat had been moved to include more areas in Orange County.

Dornan suggested that Rohrabacher defer to his political seniority and run in a neighboring district, which had been redrawn to include some of the younger lawmaker’s territory in Los Angeles County.

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But Rohrabacher vowed to stay put, and Dornan eventually filed to run in the central Orange County 47th district, the seat he eventually lost to Sanchez.

The decision not to run against Rohrabacher, Dornan said at the time, came after he received a call from Rohrabacher’s mother. She tugged at his heart, Dornan said, and convinced him to avoid a GOP primary fight with her son.

After Dornan’s about-face, a relieved Rohrabacher announced, “There’s nothing that Bob Dornan could do for the rest of his life where I won’t be his friend.”

The friendship’s over, Rohrabacher said Thursday. He said he’d been hoping not to draw a primary opponent so he could devote more time to his wife, Rhonda, who is pregnant with triplets and due in April.

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