Key Race Is Seen as a Test of GOP's Vulnerability

Times Staff Writer

As voters in the 50th Congressional District look to replace incarcerated Randy "Duke" Cunningham, the candidates are talking about sending messages.

Brian Bilbray, a former GOP congressman attempting a comeback, says a vote for him is a message to the Iraqi insurgents that the U.S. will not cut and run, and a message to illegal immigrants not to expect quickie citizenship.

But Democratic candidate Francine Busby says voters should send a different message: A change is needed in Washington because of the quagmire in Iraq and the "culture of corruption" under Republicans and the Bush administration.

Normally, this district is so Republican that Democratic strategist Donna Brazile says it's not just red, but "ruby red."

However, with Bush's approval ratings severely hobbled by Iraq and other issues and Cunningham in prison for the biggest corruption case in congressional history, the GOP is running concerned, if not downright scared.

A loss here, or even a close victory, could be seen as a sign that the GOP hold on Washington is slipping and that November could see wholesale change.

"This is a biggie," said Carl Luna, a political science professor at San Diego's Mesa College. "Everyone is going to be reading the tea leaves as a predictor of November."

The party is airing numerous commercials blasting Busby, a Cardiff school board member. Last week, Vice President Dick Cheney stumped and, what's more important, raised money for Bilbray; Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is on his way.

"It's the one-two punch: Cheney for the right wing, McCain for the moderates," Luna said.

Busby, 55, ran against Cunningham in 2004 and was defeated easily. Even before he was snared in scandal over bribery and tax evasion, she had declared her plan to seek a rematch.

Bilbray, also 55, went to Congress in 1994 -- as part of the Newt Gingrich-led Contract With America movement -- and then lost his reelection campaign in 2000 in a district south of here. Defeat turned him into a Washington-based lobbyist.

The two emerged from an April 11 special election as their party nominees to fill the final seven months of what would have been Cunningham's eighth term.

Regardless of the June 6 winner, there will be a rematch in November for a full two-year term.

That's because a separate part of the June 6 ballot also serves as a party primary for the November general election. Busby will take her party's nod in a walk; Bilbray is expected to do the same.

Many of the GOP hopefuls who were his opponents in the April 11 election are still listed as candidates in the primary, but only one is still campaigning: Bill Hauf, a wealthy real estate developer. Party elders talked millionaire investor Eric Roach, who placed second to Bilbray, into dropping his campaign.

Because of the Republican party's national problems, the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report has listed the 50th as "a tossup, tilting Republican," a far cry from the usual slam-dunk for the GOP.

There will be hundreds of congressional primaries June 6, but only one special election for an open seat, Rothenberg analyst Nathan Gonzalez said.

"The 50th is a symbolic race," said Gonzalez. "If the Republicans lose, the story nationwide will be: 'Republicans are in even more trouble than we thought.' "

Busby stands to profit from not just the Cunningham scandal but also from every problem associated with the Bush administration, Gonzalez said.

"On her own resume, she would not be a particularly strong candidate," he said. "But in this situation, she definitely has made it a competitive race."

As a test of political philosophies, the Busby-Bilbray match gives us a self-described "moderate to liberal" versus a "mainstream conservative." Asked to name their political role models, she listed Sens. Dianne Feinstein, John McCain and Barack Obama; he picked Teddy Roosevelt, Rep. David Dreier and Pete Wilson.

For Busby, the hot-button issue is the seeming explosion of corruption investigations in Washington, along with the bribery and tax-evasion convictions that sent Cunningham to prison for eight years.

In her opening remarks at a debate last week, she announced that ABC News had just reported that House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Illinois) was being investigated for corruption -- a report quickly denied by Hastert and the Justice Department.

For Bilbray, the red-meat issue is illegal immigration. It has worked for him in the past; he defeated a Democratic incumbent in 1994, in part, by being an enthusiastic supporter of anti-illegal immigration Proposition 187.

"You'll get to decide in the next six months whether your grandchildren will be learning Spanish because they want to or because they have to," Bilbray said.

In a district that covers part of northern San Diego and several suburbs, Republicans have a 44% to 30% registration edge over Democrats, with 22% independents.

But in the April 11 election a higher percentage of Democrats voted than Republicans -- defying the truism that GOP voters turn out more dependably.

The results of the June 6 election could hang on whether that turnabout is repeated or whether the Republican effort to boost turnout through mailings and television commercials is successful.

Bilbray says that even knowing what is known today, he would have voted to invade Iraq. In her public comments, Busby has consistently opposed the invasion. He is for oil drilling in Alaska; she opposes it. He supports the National Security Agency's telephone-record mining; she opposes it.

He thinks high schools and colleges that ban military recruiters should lose federal funding; she doesn't. He would threaten Iran with war if it doesn't drop its nuclear ambitions; she's uncomfortable with the United States determining which nations can have nuclear weapons.

"I don't seriously think we're in a position where we can talk about starting another war," she said.

On some issues they agree: favoring stem-cell research and abortion rights and coming out against pressuring the military to give up the Miramar Marine Corps Air Station so a civilian airport can be built there.

After a lifetime in politics -- including stints on the Imperial Beach City Council and San Diego County Board of Supervisors -- Bilbray is a polished campaigner, slinging facts and figures and even showing a self-deprecating wit. Busby can seem tentative and unsure.

She is a lecturer in the women's studies department at Cal State San Marcos, the scene of last week's debate. Bilbray makes a joke about his lack of academic credentials.

"I actually wanted to be a history professor but I couldn't pull the academics," he told the audience. "So I went to Congress instead."

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