George Bush is proving to be a problem for Republican Christine Reed as she wages an uphill battle for the state Assembly.
California's economy remains mired in the worst downturn since the Depression, a fact of life that seems destined to cost Bush the nation's biggest electoral prize and hurt Reed in the process.
When she entered the Republican primary last winter, it looked as if the newly created 41st Assembly District, stretching from Santa Monica over the mountains to Agoura Hills, would be a prime political battleground this fall.
Democrats held a slim lead in voter registration. Redistricting forced Assemblyman Terry B. Friedman to move westward from a safe district and run for reelection on less than solid ground. And Reed, a moderate Republican with a long record on the Santa Monica City Council, was viewed as having a shot at defeating the liberal Democrat.
But with the election little more than a week away, Reed's prospects now look less promising. A shortage of campaign funds and a successful Democratic voter registration drive have made the task much more difficult.
The latest campaign contribution reports filed Thursday show Reed had just $15,307 in her campaign treasury Oct. 17, the close of the reporting period. That was a fraction of the $266,647 that Friedman had available. The amount of cash in hand is important because it is a measure of a candidate's ability to communicate with voters in the closing days of a campaign.
But raising enough money is not Reed's only obstacle.
Since the June primary, Democrats have registered 10,000 more voters in the district than the Republicans, boosting their advantage over the GOP to a more comfortable 13 percentage points. Indeed, more people registered as independent than Republican during the same period.
Faced with that trend, Reed is portraying herself in her campaign mailers as offering "independent leadership." She does not remind voters that she is the Republican in the race.
"It's on the ballot, they'll see it right there," Reed said when asked why she doesn't mention her party affiliation. "I'm campaigning for myself, for who I am, and what I stand for."
In campaign appearances, she is far more likely to mention independent presidential candidate Ross Perot than to utter Bush's name.
That is not an accident. Friedman said his precinct-walking has shown "people are sick of the Bush approach" and want change.
Friedman finds "tremendous enthusiasm" in the district for Democrats Bill Clinton and Al Gore. "I think it will be very helpful to every Democrat on the ticket all the way down the line," he said. "It will substantially boost Democratic turnout."
So, winning over independent voters is essential if Reed is to have any chance at capturing the Assembly seat. Staffers of both campaigns know it, and they are going after those voters.
Friedman has also picked up on the independence theme, presenting himself as an "independent Democrat." He is trying to distance himself from Assembly Speaker Willie Brown of San Francisco, the state's most powerful Democrat, despite his past support for him.
As the campaign entered the final stretch, Reed acknowledged she is in a tough fight. "This was never an easy job," she said.
Making Reed's challenge that much harder is Friedman's standing as a member of a Democratic political organization headed by Reps. Howard L. Berman and Henry A. Waxman that is known for its fund-raising prowess and targeted mail campaigns.
The campaign rhetoric has grown much more heated in recent days.
In back-to-back mailers, Reed has branded Friedman as a "carpetbagger from the Hollywood Hills" and a soft-on-crime "ultra-liberal incumbent."
The attacks drew a sharp response from the usually low-key lawmaker, who has never faced a serious challenger in three previous elections.
"It's an outrageous distortion," Friedman said. "It's gutter politics."
He was particularly incensed that Reed's mailer chastised him for abstaining or voting against a series of bills that would have increased penalties for rape and murder.
Friedman opposes the death penalty and votes against capital punishment bills. "I'm not hiding my position on that," he said.
The assemblyman, who headed a Jewish legal services agency before becoming a legislator, said he cannot support the death penalty as a matter of conscience. Instead, he favors life in prison without the possibility of parole in murder cases.
Reed favors capital punishment and believes it is a deterrent to crime. She defends her mailer, which makes the death penalty a litmus test on whether a lawmaker is tough on crime.
"Terry Friedman does not care to be as tough on certain types of crime as society would want him to be," she said. "Most citizens view the death penalty as an appropriate penalty for cold, calculated murder."