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GOP Newcomer Reluctant to Yield : Politics: Rep. Randall (Duke) Cunningham, now in the same San Diego district as six-term incumbent Bill Lowery, is resisting pressure to let the longtime congressman have a clear shot at a safe seat.


SAN DIEGO — It's deja vu all over again.

Within the last week, two Orange County Republican congressmen made Solomonic peace, and one of them, Robert Dornan (R-Garden Grove), agreed not to run against conservative soul mate Dana Rohrabacher (R-Long Beach) in the same newly drawn district.

Then, veteran Ventura County Republican Robert J. Lagomarsino said Monday that for the sake of party unity, he would move to avoid a political fight with another Republican incumbent in a new congressional district they now share.

But farther down the coast, two San Diego Republican congressmen are getting ready to slug it out, refusing to back down in what is becoming a bitter intraparty GOP dispute.

Congressional newcomer Randall (Duke) Cunningham (R-San Diego) and six-term incumbent Rep. Bill Lowery (R-San Diego) are signaling their intent to run for the same newly drafted North San Diego County congressional seat.

The Cunningham-Lowery dispute, like the Orange and Ventura County arm-wrestlings of earlier weeks, has its origins in the reapportionment plan unveiled early this month by a special state Supreme Court panel that redrew California's congressional and state legislative districts to conform to population shifts over the last decade.

San Diego's battle has become something of a game of political chicken over a "safe" conservative North County district coveted by both GOP incumbents.

Each has accused the other of abandoning his current constituents, and there is evidence to support that charge on both sides: Cunningham hopes to find friendlier political terrain than the heavily Democratic district that he won last year in an upset, while Lowery is equally eager to distance himself from the coastal district that nearly ousted him last year.

Concerned over the rift, Gov. Pete Wilson, a close ally of Lowery from their days at City Hall, has asked Cunningham to reconsider his decision, but the former fighter pilot rebuffed the governor's peacemaking.

Yet last Friday, Cunningham abruptly canceled a scheduled television debate with Lowery, then released a brief statement saying that the two "intend to talk further."

Although the gesture gave Republican leaders hope that the dispute still could be resolved peacefully, it also surprised some of them nearly as much as it pleased them.

"It looks to me like Top Gun blinked," one potential San Diego mayoral candidate said of Cunningham. "Who'd have bet that Lowery could stare down Duke?"

When he ran for Congress in 1990, Cunningham occasionally mused about how the skills he developed as one of the nation's most decorated fighter pilots in Vietnam would transfer to politics.

In both aerial and political battles, Cunningham said, it is essential to decide on a proper course of action and stick to it. "Never, never ," he said, give an opponent a hint of indecisiveness or lack of will. "If someone's going to blink, you want it to be the other guy," he said weeks before his upset victory over Rep. Jim Bates (D-San Diego).

But if Cunningham ultimately veers off his collision course with Lowery, it will be because he has been staring at far more sets of eyes: party officials from Wilson to local leaders have asked Cunningham to defer to Lowery.

Such pressure--diplomatically framed via appeals to party loyalty and harmony--would be difficult for any politician to withstand, much less one with less than a year in office.

"Unless Duke's a Tomcat fighter in this battle, he's about to get the governor's cruise missile," said one San Diego political consultant. "That's enough to make anyone gulp and rethink things."

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