It's the political equivalent of a solar eclipse--that rare phenomenon when three Assembly members are forced into a do-or-die election that could be the end of two legislative careers.
Republican incumbents in Orange County are usually among the toughest politicians to unseat. But now Tom Mays (R-Huntington Beach), Nolan Frizzelle (R-Fountain Valley) and Doris Allen (R-Cypress), who have been public figures in this northwestern corner of Orange County for years, find themselves trying to oust each other in the battle over the 67th Assembly District seat.
The three Assembly members are friends and political soul mates, adding a cannibalistic edge to this race, as conservatives who have supported all three candidates in the past are forced to choose sides.
"You are going to have friends against friends in this race, which is unfortunate," said Steve Brodie, Orange County chairman of the conservative Coordinating Republican Assembly. "People who have worked side by side in the past are going to be at opposite ends."
In one of their first campaign events of the primary, all three candidates spoke Saturday in Anaheim at a convention of the Orange County CRA. Both Mays and Allen talked about their commitment in the Legislature to improve conditions for businesses.
"A lot of things need to be done in the Legislature to help business in California," Mays said. "We need to fight to keep our business climate here."
Frizzelle sought to contrast his strict conservative principles with those of Republicans who, he complains, have been too willing to compromise with Democrats--a charge he has leveled at Mays.
"The CRA doesn't stand for conservatism, it doesn't stand for Republicanism, it stands for what is right," Frizzelle said. "There is a right and wrong in every decision."
Underscoring the difficulty for conservatives to choose a favorite among these candidates, the CRA membership did not agree on an endorsement Saturday.
Mays, Frizzelle and Allen were forced into their confrontation in January when the state Supreme Court adopted new lines for legislative districts based on the 1990 census.
The new 67th Assembly District--stretching along the coast from Huntington Beach to the northern county line and inland to parts of Cypress, Los Alamitos and Fountain Valley--included the homes of all three lawmakers, as well as portions of their current districts.
Allen initially thought she might avoid the primary by running in the new 68th Assembly District, which also included part of her existing territory near Garden Grove. She later decided, however, that she did not want to move her residence.
Mays was the first to announce his bid for the new seat, saying he would run in whatever district included his hometown of Huntington Beach. That left Frizzelle with the no-win decision of running against Mays or moving his home so he could challenge another conservative ally, Assemblyman Gil Ferguson in Newport Beach.
"We have good and friendly relationships as legislators and that's still continuing, as far as I know," Allen said. "This is unfortunate in terms of us individually, but it's a reality and we have to do it."
The 67th Assembly District is about 54% Republican, making the GOP nominee a heavy favorite to win the general election in November. Still, Democrats have one candidate in the race who will automatically advance to the November ballot.
Ken LeBlanc, an officer for a company in Huntington Beach that sells automotive parts, describes himself as a pro-business, conservative Democrat. He said he has already raised $30,000 for his campaign.
"I feel comfortable with Republican business groups," LeBlanc said.
The chairman of the Orange County Libertarian Party, Brian Schar, is also a candidate in the 67th Assembly District race.
But only the three Republicans face a primary fight June 2. And their race is sure to be a closely watched test of campaign strategy as they attempt the hair-splitting task of telling voters how they are different from each other.
All three candidates oppose a woman's right to abortion; they favor welfare cuts; and they oppose a health care plan that would force businesses to pay more for employee insurance. There are some differences among them on the environment, an issue dear to voters living near one of Orange County's most popular beaches.
Mays was elected to his first Assembly term in 1990 after a campaign that highlighted his role as mayor of Huntington Beach during a major oil spill that year. He has campaigned hard as an environmentalist dedicated to protecting the coast.
Allen was the sponsor of a successful statewide environmental initiative in 1990 that prohibits fishermen in California waters from using gill nets because of their danger to a variety of sea life, especially sea lions and dolphins.
The clash between the environment and development in Orange County has focused recently on the California gnatcatcher, a tiny and rare bird whose habitat is in the path of some proposed construction.