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GOP Candidate Leads in Pivotal House Race

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Times Staff Writers

Former Republican Rep. Brian Bilbray battled a Democrat on Tuesday to replace imprisoned ex-Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham in a contest that drew national attention for what it may portend about the GOP’s hold on Congress.

Across the state, California’s congressional incumbents, some of them singed by scandals emanating from the nation’s capital, sought to fend off challengers who railed against everything from their perceived support for the war in Iraq to their ties with corrupt lobbyists.

Incumbents were holding their own.

The most closely watched congressional race in California -- perhaps the nation -- took place in north San Diego County, where lobbyist and former Congressman Bilbray sought to succeed Cunningham.

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Bilbray had inched ahead of his Democratic foe, Francine Busby, 55, a school board member in suburban Cardiff-by-the-Sea. Busby had hammered repeatedly on the theme of ending a “culture of corruption” that erupted under President Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress.

The fight for the 50th Congressional District was seen as an early test of whether Democrats could capitalize on Bush’s plummeting approval ratings to regain a majority in at least one house of Congress.

“What is going on in California, in the 50th District, might be replicated in the rest of the country,” said Stuart Rothenberg of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report in Washington, D.C.

Cunningham, a Republican from Rancho Santa Fe, pleaded guilty to bribery and tax evasion and is serving an eight-year prison sentence. The investigation into Cunningham’s activities continues, focusing in part on Poway-based defense contractor Brent Wilkes.

Between what the two candidates raised, and what the national parties have spent, the price tag for the race tops $10 million -- much of it spent on negative television ads.

In recent days, Bilbray received $7,000 from San Diego Chargers owner Alex Spanos and his family, and $5,000 from the New Majority Political Action Committee. Spanos and New Majority are major patrons of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Bilbray also benefited from fundraising efforts by Vice President Dick Cheney.

Bilbray said Tuesday night that he had surged in recent days, and lauded First Lady Laura Bush for her campaign help; she made automated phone calls on his behalf.

“Laura is great,” Bilbray said. If he emerged victorious, Bilbray added, he would vote against amnesty for illegal immigrants and in favor of a constitutional amendment to prohibit gay marriage.

Republicans hold a wide registration lead over Democrats, 44% to 30%, and the district has reliably voted for Republican presidential candidates. In an April 11 preliminary to Tuesday’s runoff, Busby, who had lost to Cunningham in 2004, finished first with 44% of the vote. Bilbray, facing a dozen Republicans, was second with 15%.

Bilbray, 55, served on the Imperial Beach City Council and the San Diego County Board of Supervisors before being elected to Congress in 1994 in a district south of the 50th; he was defeated in 2000 and became a Washington-based lobbyist. He has made illegal immigration a centerpiece of his campaign.

The race was a bit confusing. Tuesday’s winner would serve the rest of Cunningham’s term and face a rematch in November. The ballot included a party primary for the November general election for a two-year term.

Busby already was talking Tuesday about continuing the campaign through November. “We have already made history,” she said.

California’s 53 congressional district boundaries were engineered to heavily favor either Republicans or Democrats, meaning that for the most part, the primary winner will be victorious in November. But congressional scandals and Bush’s unpopularity in California have spiced up races around the state.

In Northern California, veteran Republicans John T. Doolittle of the Sacramento suburb of Roseville and Richard Pombo of Tracy normally would be shoo-ins.

But their races became heated after both congressmen came under attack from ethics watchdogs because of their ties to embattled former House Majority Leader Tom Delay (R-Texas) and Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who is at the center of a widening scandal.

Doolittle, 55, who represents the 4th District in the affluent Sierra foothills east of Sacramento, was seeking his ninth term. Pombo, 45, whose 11th District in the San Joaquin Valley includes parts of the Bay Area, was after his eighth term.

Doolittle received more than $64,000 from Abramoff and his associates and more than $130,000 from Wilkes and his associates. Doolittle’s wife, Julie, worked for Abramoff and runs a campaign fundraising operation that counts Doolittle as her major client. Pombo, 45, collected $37,500 from Abramoff and his associates.

Doolittle’s seat is considered safe in November, given that Republicans enjoy a 48% to 30% advantage in voter registration. But facing opposition and given the taint of the Abramoff scandal, Doolittle raised more than $1 million. That’s 14 times that of main opponent Mike Holmes, 66, a former Navy officer and diplomat who serves as mayor of Auburn, and nearly 10 times the amount of Democratic front-runner Charlie Brown, 56, a retired Air Force pilot.

Doolittle led his Republican challenger by a wide margin Tuesday night.

Pombo, chairman of the powerful House Resources Committee, collected $1.8 million for his campaign. He was fending off a challenge from 74-year-old Pete McCloskey, a former maverick GOP congressman from the San Francisco Peninsula.

Pombo, appearing briefly at a celebration at Mallard’s Restaurant in Stockton before leaving for Washington, was confident of victory, but also called the primary his toughest since his first congressional campaign in 1992, when he was a little-known Tracy city councilman.

“My opponent and the environmentalists spent hundreds of thousands against me,” Pombo said. “It is the first time I’ve seen them take out ads on San Francisco television stations.”

McCloskey was aided by an influx of cash and volunteers from environmental groups who have targeted Pombo. McCloskey also attacked Pombo over ethics-related issues.

McCloskey acknowledged his apparent defeat to his supporters at a hotel in Pleasanton late Tuesday -- and said he would “actively campaign” for the Democratic nominee against Pombo in November.

“This guy Pombo represents everything I deplore about the Republican Party in Washington,” McCloskey said. “I’m a Republican, but party loyalty is no longer an issue.”

The Democratic standard-bearer will be either Steve Filson, 58, a former Navy pilot from Danville, or Jerry McNerney, 53, a scientist from Pleasanton.

To the south in Los Angeles, Rep. Jane Harman declared victory over her Democratic challenger, Marcy Winograd, who had attacked what she contends is Harman’s support for the war in Iraq. The 36th District is solidly Democratic.

Winograd used $200,000 of her own money and donations from liberals such as Barbra Streisand and Susan Sarandon. She also aired television ads promising to “have the courage to hold George Bush accountable.”

“We have held Jane Harman accountable and made public her championing of this war,” Winograd said at her campaign party in Manhattan Beach.

Winograd forced Harman to campaign, something she has not had to do since she won back her House seat in 2000. Harman said she raised $700,000 and spent $630,000 on this year’s primary.

Harman’s campaign sought to portray her as a “very progressive Democrat and an outspoken and articulate opponent of the Bush policy,” said Democratic consultant Roy Behr, representing Harman.

“You have to earn it every two years,” Harman said at a Manhattan Beach restaurant. “There is more that unites the Democratic Party than divides it.”

In other congressional races of note, former Assembly Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield won the GOP nomination to succeed his mentor, Rep. Bill Thomas, who is retiring, while two state assemblymen, forced by term limits to leave Sacramento, were challenging longtime incumbents.

Assemblyman Juan Vargas (D-San Diego) ran against Rep. Bob Filner, an eight-term incumbent also from San Diego. Assemblyman Joe Nation (D-San Rafael), running as a moderate in a district north of San Francisco, trailed incumbent Lynn Woolsey (D-Petaluma), an antiwar seven-term incumbent.

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Perry reported from San Diego, Tempest from Stockton. Times staff writers Dan Morain and Joe Mathews in Los Angeles contributed to this report.


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