Like a modern-day Daniel entering the lion's den, Rep. William E. Dannemeyer strode purposefully into a roomful of sex educators and therapists.
The crowd, gathered to hear him debate a noted gay-rights spokesman on the subject of AIDS, gasped when the Fullerton Republican called for quarantining AIDS patients, perhaps in the 20th-Century equivalent of leper houses.
When Dannemeyer proposed making it a federal crime for gay men to donate blood, a wave of whispers rippled through the room. Gasps of disbelief followed his call to re-enact state anti-sodomy laws.
His opponent, New York University associate law professor Thomas Stoddard, head of a New York-based gay-rights action group, took his turn at the podium and declared, "Congressman Dannemeyer has just expressed so many wrongheaded ideas about AIDS, I don't know where to begin."
The crowd in the downtown Los Angeles hotel ballroom applauded enthusiastically, as a smile spread across Dannemeyer's face. He shook his head in amusement, firm in his convictions and evidently enjoying the intellectual jousting.
Indeed, the 56-year-old lawyer turned champion of the religious right seems to thrive on the firing line. Whether on the road, as in the April debate, or on the floor of the House of Representatives, he seeks out chances to express his staunchly conservative, fundamentalist Christian views--be they social or economic--with evangelistic fervor.
And he seldom misses a chance to deliver a favorite homily: "God's plan for man is Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve."
Although Dannemeyer's views generate intense controversy, they haven't hurt him politically at home. Few would disagree that the 39th Congressional District fits him like a glove.
The affluent district--comprising Fullerton, Yorba Linda, Villa Park, La Habra, Orange, Placentia, Brea and parts of Anaheim--is a bastion of bedrock, almost Bible-Belt conservatism made up mostly of white suburban homeowners.
It also is one of the state's most consistently Republican districts, giving President Ronald Reagan 77% of the vote in 1984. . The same year, Dannemeyer racked up 76% of the vote.
This November, Dannemeyer will face Democrat David D. Vest, who works for the Orange County Health Care Agency, and Peace & Freedom candidate Frank Boeheim in what is expected to be an easy reelection campaign.
Despite his popularity, some of Dannemeyer's Republican constituents, including several Orange County officials, said they wish he would spend more time solving local problems.
"He's never done anything for us," complained one county official who asked not to be identified. "People like Dannemeyer are so interested in pushing their own ideology (that) they don't bother to do anything for the county or their district."
Even before his controversial AIDS proposals catapulted him to national attention during an aborted U.S. Senate bid earlier this year, the four-term congressman was well known on Capitol Hill for his outspoken views and hard-charging style.
"Dynamiter," a nickname coined in his days as a state assemblyman, was revived among GOP colleagues in Washington for what the Congressional Quarterly termed Dannemeyer's "bullheaded" tendency to "crash head-on into legislative obstacles rather than steer . . . around them."
'Don Quixote of Right'
But many Democrats and even some Republicans call him "an ideological zealot" for his militant opposition to abortion, pornography, gay rights and the equal rights amendment, and his advocacy of prayer and teaching creationism in public schools. Some critics charge that Dannemeyer is nothing more than an obstructionist, selfishly holding up congressional hearings and blocking legislation for which there is broad, bipartisan support.
Others call him the "Don Quixote of the Right," forever tilting at the twin scourges of society--an "expanding liberal welfare state" and the trend toward "secular humanism," which he contends is sapping the nation's moral strength.
Most see him as the quintessential conservative, supporting a return to the gold standard, a strong national defense, cutting the size of government and getting the regulators off the collective back of private industry. He is one of the strongest voices in California for increased offshore oil and gas exploration to help reduce dependence on foreign oil.
"If you ask 435 members of the House who is the most conservative, Dannemeyer is probably going to be within everybody's top two or three choices," said Mike Johnson, chief of staff to House Minority Leader Robert Michels (R-Ill.)
He also is seen as someone dedicated to using the rules of the House to frustrate Democratic legislation he opposes.
"Dannemeyer takes great satisfaction in throwing down the gauntlet," Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Sacramento) said. "He feigns this image that he's a 'John Wayne' kind of guy come to town, his guns blazing. It's great Orange County imagery."
Above all, the wealthy but frugal native Californian is known as "Mr. Balanced Budget."