Entertained enough to stay glued to fold-out chairs for two hours, voters in this winsome Gold Rush town recently watched the top Republicans in California's hottest congressional race rip apart their own party for plundering the treasury, caving in to environmentalists and opening the borders.
The most venomous attacks came from state Sen. Tom McClintock of Thousand Oaks, who has ventured north to run on his statewide reputation as a ramrod conservative. McClintock's swipes were intended to yoke top rival Doug Ose, a former Republican congressman from Sacramento, to the scorn voters hold for Washington.
"The government is not our nanny, and the national treasury is not a grab-bag for pork-barrel earmarks," McClintock told a packed house during a candidates forum in the town's Veteran's Memorial Building. He added that he was especially ashamed of the unchecked spending when Republicans controlled Congress.
The whiff of political fratricide has added heat to a GOP primary campaign already defined by personal attacks in political ads and mailers, with McClintock accusing Ose of being a free-spending "Washington, D.C., liberal" and Ose dismissing McClintock as a carpetbagging "L.A. politician."
The political rhetoric also underscores how that even in Northern California's 4th Congressional District, one of the most conservative in the state, Republicans are campaigning to clean up their own party as much as anything else.
The district is one of only two open congressional seats up for grabs in the June 3 primary. The other is in San Diego, where the namesake son of Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter is hoping to fill the seat being vacated by his father.
Most members of California's congressional delegation are expected to glide through the primary and hold the edge in November, thanks to the hefty fundraising perks of incumbency and districts drawn to their advantage.
Republicans dominate the 4th Congressional District, which stretches north from the Sacramento suburbs to the Oregon border, accounting for 47% of registered voters, to nearly 31% for the Democrats.
"It's probably one of the most expensive congressional primary races in the country," said Barbara O'Connor, professor of political communication at Sacramento State University. "It is the most conservative district in California. It's kind of a plum for that wing of the party, hence McClintock's run. He's sort of their poster child."
The candidates' campaign styles couldn't be more different, even when hammering on the same themes: tightening border security, reducing taxes, opposing universal healthcare, opening Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling and questioning global warming.
Ose relishes the handshakes and chitchat of shoe-leather campaigning. During a recent campaign swing through the Sierra Nevada, he proudly boasted that, unlike McClintock, he was "born and raised in Northern California" and would gladly tell you the best steak joint in Truckee.
While hobnobbing with supporters at the Gar Woods Grill in North Lake Tahoe, he discussed the intricacies of fire protection in the surrounding national forest and federal water quality restrictions on the lake. Ose emphasizes his accomplishments in Congress, from landing federal funding to fix traffic jams on Interstate 80 to helping clear environmental roadblocks that stalled construction of the border fence.
"You will find that I will have dirt under my fingernails," Ose told them. "You're not getting a neophyte here."
During debates, however, he stumbles against the razor-sharp McClintock, who has had two decades to hone a crowd-pleasing conservative mantra laced with word-for-word quotes from Ronald Reagan and the founding fathers.
"I believe the reason for our national distress is the fact that our national leaders strayed so far from the fundamental constitutional principles that guided this country so well for so long," McClintock told the crowd during the Nevada City candidate forum. "As Reagan said, government is not the solution to many of the problems that face us, government is the cause of many of the problems that face us."
The Northern California congressional seat is now held by longtime Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Roseville), who is retiring amid a drawn-out FBI corruption investigation into his ties with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The GOP primary winner is expected to face off in November against Democrat Charlie Brown, who narrowly lost to Doolittle in 2006.
Ose, a wealthy real estate developer who represented the neighboring Sacramento district from 1999 to 2006, has used close to $1.5 million of his own fortune to flood the airwaves and mailboxes with ads deriding McClintock as a hypocrite for collecting a government paycheck for two decades while he preached against the ills of big government.
"For 22 years, Tom McClintock has been representing Los Angeles in the Legislature, but now terms limits are forcing him out, so he's shopping for a new job," one of Ose's more cheeky television ads says.
Ose also is quick to remind voters that McClintock is registered to vote in Thousand Oaks -- though he lives in Elk Grove, near Sacramento -- and can't even cast a ballot for himself in the primary.
Former Placer County Supervisor Jim Williams said he respected McClintock's conservative philosophy, but endorsed Ose because the former congressman is more concerned about accomplishments than ideology.
"I've personally served in local government, and I've realized we're not sending someone back to Washington to espouse philosophy; we need someone who can get things done," said Williams, an architect. "If you're just going to vote no on everything, you're not going to be an effective legislator."
But McClintock has gained support by emphasizing his legislative successes, including leading the effort to roll back the car tax and working with the Democratic majority to approve the use of lethal injection on death row criminals.
"You know me," McClintock told a lively crowd during his first head-to-head debate with Ose in Rocklin in April. "You know that I've always steered a straight course, and you know I won't rest until these principles are restored."
McClintock also points out that Ose lives outside the 4th Congressional District-- he recently rented a room inside the lines -- and has fired at Ose for accepting $600,000 in federal subsidies to his family's farming interests.
Ose has returned the favor by blasting McClintock for "ripping off taxpayers" by accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax-free per diem payments from the state, as reported by The Times in March.
The $170-a-day payments are meant to help lawmakers pay their additional living expenses while attending eight-month legislative session far from their homes. But McClintock and his family live year-round in a home just 14 miles from the Capitol.
McClintock said he is entitled to the tax-free payments because his legal residence is in Thousand Oaks, a home that belongs to his mother. He scoffed at Ose's charge that he's been "gaming the system."
"I'm concluding 22 years in the state Legislature now. I have no pension, I turned that down when I began in 1982. . . . I've certainly not gotten rich," McClintock said.
McClintock's reputation as an anti-tax, anti-deficit conservative is known to Republicans across California because of his four unsuccessful bids for statewide office -- for governor, lieutenant governor and, twice, for controller. If his bedrock opposition to abortion, gun control and "big government" has consistently failed to win over voters statewide, it is what attracts Ben Rendahl, 71, a retired LAPD officer now of Lincoln Hills.
Rendahl came to watch a recent debate between Ose and McClintock, and said he was leaning toward McClintock because he's "as honest as a politician can be."
His only concern is that McClintock may widen the partisan divide in Washington.
"The bickering has to stop," Rendahl said. "They need to get to a point where they can get something done."