It may be as bloody as a bout between lightweights and as consequential as a kindergarten squabble. But verbal fisticuffs have broken out in the race for a U.S. Senate seat between an unlikely pair of combatants--two Republicans vying for the vote of the religious right.
First in the ring was conservative Republican William Allen, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, who is mounting a nearly invisible campaign for the Republican nomination against U.S. Rep. William Dannemeyer of Fullerton and appointed incumbent Sen. John Seymour.
Allen, a professor of government at Harvey Mudd College, accused Dannemeyer of abandoning conservatives by pledging to back Seymour, a moderate Republican, if Seymour won the June, 1992, primary.
Next came Dannemeyer, whose staff accused Allen's of undercutting the Orange County congressman by spreading lies.
So far, the dispute has inspired fits of glee among Allen's supporters, who fondly hope that their candidate can break free from anonymity. It also appears to have prompted Dannemeyer to rescind his friendly endorsement pledge in the race for one of two Senate seats up for grabs in 1992.
And it produced a startling exchange of missives that laid bare some of the nastiness normally hidden from voters during political campaigns.
"You are beginning to get personal when you start challenging Cong. Dannemeyer's integrity," the representative's field director, Steve Baldwin, warned in a letter to Allen's campaign manager, David Warnick.
"We have no intention of ever getting personal in this campaign, but if we wanted to, there are things in Bill Allen's past we could have brought out," he added. ". . . Start acting like the Christians you profess to be."
The contretemps is being played out as part of a larger battle for strictly conservative and religious voters. Many of these voters disagree with Seymour on issues such as abortion--which he favors and they oppose--and are seen as the likeliest backers of either Dannemeyer or Allen.
Both candidates have made clear attempts to appeal to religious interests. Allen, in a press release announcing the appointment of his campaign manager in July, dealt with religious concerns before such secular matters as campaign strategy.
Allen said his campaign manager, Warnick, "knows and cares about people--his record of serving on a pastoral staff for the last seven years proves this!"
And Dannemeyer, in an August letter to his supporters, listed his responsibility to religious Republicans as the reason he backed away from his pledge to endorse the Republican nominee--even if it is Seymour.
"I have decided that I cannot support one of the leaders of a movement to liberalize the party which, if successful, will cause millions of Christians to drop out, leaving us without any political vehicle by which to influence public policy," Dannemeyer said.
For its part, Seymour's staff was happy to stay out of the ring.
"Sen. Seymour is going to run his own campaign and be aggressive in getting his message out to the people of California, and he is confident of success," said the senator's press spokesman, H.D. Palmer. "This is a matter between them."
Ideologically, Dannemeyer and Allen would probably find more comfort battling Seymour, for they are both on the right of the Republican political spectrum, while Seymour resides in the middle. But the tussling, particularly on Allen's part, seems to reflect the likelihood that only one of them will survive to contest Seymour in the spring.
Indeed, Allen and Baldwin, Dannemeyer's field director, said the two had agreed that whichever candidate lags behind next spring will back out of the race to strengthen the survivor's chances against Seymour.
Curiously, Dannemeyer distanced himself from that agreement in an interview, calling the scenario hypothetical.
"I don't think there's any question that I am the stronger candidate," Dannemeyer said. "When I file for the seat in March of next year I expect to be the only candidate opposing Seymour."
As to the substance of the exchange, Dannemeyer acknowledged having previously agreed to support Seymour if the incumbent wins the primary. But he said that the statement was premature and that he will wait to see how Seymour votes on bills related to abortion rights and homosexual rights.
Allen and his staff suggested that Dannemeyer's change of heart was evidence of a "flip-flop" on Dannemeyer's part. Allen said he would not endorse Seymour.
"I'm not automatically going to endorse a Republican just because he's a Republican," Allen said. "Certainly that means that finding John Seymour wanting. In principle, I would not endorse him."
Allen said he was mystified at the sharp tone of Baldwin's retort, which accused the Allen campaign of spreading the word that Dannemeyer was planning to drop out of the race, that he favored big government and that he had sold out his principles.
Allen said the letter's thinly veiled threat to expose allegations about his past were intolerable.
"If they thought there was something they should tell the people of California, I believe they have a moral obligation to tell them," he said. "It calls into question their motivations."
Baldwin would not say what he was referring to, except that it was personal. Dannemeyer distanced himself from his aide's comments.
"Hey, look, I'm running against Mr. Seymour. I don't know any of those statements about that (Allen's) background. I don't campaign that way. What else can I say?"