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Acrimony Abounds as Campaigns Draw to Close : Politics: Libel suits, false claims and nasty stunts make this one of the meanest primary seasons on record.

May 31, 1992|BARRY M. HORSTMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Amid a cascade of campaign dollars and 11th-hour acrimony uncommon even by political standards, San Diego's most dynamic, competitive primary season in a decade is lunging toward Tuesday's finish line, careening between high drama and low comedy in its final days.

For voters who must sift through the 451 candidates running for 327 positions throughout the county, an already confusing task has become even more daunting under the nonstop barrage of caustic, often inaccurate charges and countercharges dominating the major contests on Tuesday's ballot.

Within the last week alone, Byron Georgiou sued Lynn Schenk for alleged libel and slander in her ads in their 49th Congressional District race, while state Sen. Wadie Deddeh threatened to sue 50th District opponent Bob Filner over a possible mailer. Another day, Kurdish protesters tried to link Deddeh, who hopes to become the first Iraqi-American elected to Congress, to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein--a stunt that Deddeh traced to his opponents.

A privately produced "Voter Guide to Pro-Choice Republicans" infuriated pro-choice Republicans left out of it because they did not pay to be included. Anti-abortion activists were equally furious, fearing that the brochure's clever design would deceive voters into thinking it was an official booklet from the county registrar of voters.

On the other side of the volatile abortion issue, a mailer endorsing numerous hard-line conservatives was denounced for not mentioning their strident anti-abortion policies--an attempt, opponents charged, to again wage the kind of "stealth" campaigns that the so-called Christian right used effectively here in 1990.

A flyer for conservative 76th Assembly District candidate Dick Daleke falsely stated that he had been endorsed by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn.--a key tax-fighting group. Daleke termed the error "a good faith, unintentional mistake." But his major opponent, former Del Mar Mayor Ronnie Delaney, saw it as "a pretty convenient mistake."

As candidates' complaints about opponents' "hit" pieces, obfuscations or distortions reached a crescendo, perhaps there was no better symbol of a campaign that has been alternately compelling and puerile, inspiring and disheartening than a flyer that began arriving in voters' mailboxes this weekend.

Headlined "An important message from JIMMY CARTER," the mailer urged voters to support Democrat Tom Carter in Tuesday's San Diego mayoral campaign. At the bottom of a short note addressed to "My Fellow Americans," it was made clear that the endorsement came, not from the former president, but rather the candidate's restaurateur brother of the same name.

Carter's strategists characterized the mailer as a humorous attention getter, but his opponents--and some voters--were not laughing, and pointed out that the flyer never specified that the endorser was not the Jimmy Carter.

"The deception and negative campaigning is the worst I've ever seen," said former Rep. Jim Bates, who is attempting a comeback against Deddeh, Filner and three other Democrats on the 50th District ballot. Bates, whose two-decade public career ended in a 1990 upset loss, attributes that trend in part to the increasingly rare direct contact between candidates and voters.

"Citizens are almost being bypassed, with the only communicating going on through mail and TV ads," Bates said. "You can say things there you don't have the guts to say eye to eye."

Even Bates, though, sent out a mailer last week saying: "Jim Bates never sold out to the special interests. Filner and Deddeh both did."

Deddeh countered with a comparison of the three major candidates' records entitled "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." Even the most casual political observer should have no difficulty determining which word Deddeh used to describe himself. And Filner's TV commercials and mailers have become increasingly truculent in the race's final week.

Lamenting that voters "get nothing but attack after attack and lie after lie in the last week," Georgiou predicts that the turnout in Tuesday's election could be even lower than the 35% range forecast by many campaign consultants.

Dismissing suggestions that his lawsuit against Schenk is simply, as her top aide put it, "a desperate gimmick," Georgiou insists he will pursue it regardless of Tuesday's outcome. The suit stems from what Georgiou calls the "patently false, intentional lies" in Schenk mailers and TV ads that include acerbic attacks on his personal and political record.

"We have to establish some range to the character assassination that can go on in a campaign, and maybe this lawsuit could do that," Georgiou said. "There have to be limits, a line that shouldn't be crossed. It's no wonder why the public is so turned off to politics."

That growing antipathy toward politics, combined with the lingering recession and the large number of candidates in unusually competitive races, have made fund-raising a major challenge for most candidates this spring.

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