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This week's gathering at the West Covina Senior Citizens Center, billed as the only face-to-face public confrontation between major-party candidates in the 34th Congressional District race, turned out to be a contest between man and telephone.

Republican challenger John Eastman showed up in the flesh Monday. Incumbent Esteban Torres (D-La Puente), an apparent hostage of the congressional budget impasse, appeared via telephone from Washington. Sponsors scrambled to rig up a $20 speaker phone.

Taking advantage of appearing in person, Eastman spoke quickly and glibly, winning frequent applause for his snappy remarks and pointed criticisms of Congress and Torres. And when it was Torres' turn to field questions by phone, Eastman moved to the back of the room to continue hobnobbing with interested seniors.

The format gave Eastman and then Torres 45 minutes to answer questions submitted to screeners by the audience and organizers. From Washington, Torres presented himself as a politician who responded to his constituents' problems, as a leader with a particular concern for the elderly and as a man of action who might leave at any moment to cast a vote on the House floor.

Although both candidates were well-received, neither totally placated a feisty crowd of about 100, which wanted to ask more questions than the moderators would allow.

At the beginning of the forum, when Eastman stood alone at the podium, a senior shouted: "Is there another candidate today or not? I was told there would be." Moderator Frank Cankar, one of the forum's organizers, ignored the remark, but a man from the next row then piped up: "You were asked where the other candidate was."

Cankar explained that Torres had planned to come but wanted to remain in Washington for budget deliberations.

The seniors were just as hard on Eastman. When the Republican challenger left the podium during a break, he was surrounded by about two dozen retirees for nearly 30 minutes. Their pointed interrogation put Eastman on the defensive on a variety of issues, including his warm regard for former President Reagan's Administration, which numerous seniors considered hostile to their interests. During the Reagan years, Eastman worked as a spokesman for the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

Eastman, who holds a master's degree in government from Claremont Graduate School, took on all comers calmly and patiently, relishing the opportunity to erode strong support of Torres among seniors. Eastman, 30, directs land acquisition for a real-estate investment company.

At the podium, Eastman repeated some of his favorite campaign themes, attacking last year's congressional pay raise and what he considers a big-spending mentality on Capitol Hill. "I see no one in Congress proposing any plan to pay back our national debts," he said.

Eastman also laid some blame on Torres, a member of the House Banking Committee, for the savings and loan crisis. The federal bailout of failed thrifts may cost the government and taxpayers upward of $500 billion. Eastman said greed for campaign contributions caused Torres and other members of Congress to overlook warning signs in the banking system.

Although Torres did not hear Eastman, he anticipated his challenger's line of attack and tried to paint himself as a banking reformer. "I voted to discourage the savings and loans from approving risky loans. I want to see the crooks go to jail," he said with an animated style that came across even through the scratchy speaker phone.

Torres refused to accept personal responsibility for the budget crisis, saying that he supports both budget cutting and fair taxation. "We should not be asking the elderly to contribute more than their fair share," he said. "We should not let the wealthy get off scot-free."

The forum was sponsored and managed by volunteers for the American Assn. of Retired Persons. It was one of six forums highlighting Los Angeles County congressional races, and a

A number of the organizers' questions, which were submitted to the candidates in advance, were phrased in ways that brought predictable answers. One question essentially asked if the candidates favored sound economic policy. Another question asked whether the candidates supported a senior citizen's right to hold a job.

Eastman apparently won some converts, something he'll have to do in droves to unseat Torres, a Latino in a heavily Democratic, heavily Latino district. Torres received 63% of the vote in the last election. Torres' district includes all of Artesia, Pico Rivera, Santa Fe Springs, Norwalk, La Puente, Valinda, West Covina, Industry and South El Monte.

"We are going to drop Torres," said retiree Dan Spitza, a registered Democrat, speaking for himself and his wife, after listening to Eastman. "Torres has voted against what his constituents want. He's changed his attitude toward the people he represents."

Fred Gratz, a retired engineer, remained loyal to Torres, 60, a four-term representative, who once worked on an auto assembly line and later became a Latino community activist.

"Eastman's a good speaker," Gratz said. "He had a good education. But that doesn't mean he speaks for us. He doesn't represent the strata of this population. Torres worked himself up from the bottom. He feels the pulse of the people."

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