PALM DESERT — If this was a normal election season, Assemblywoman Tricia Hunter's triumph in a withering June primary would have left the Republican almost worry-free heading into Tuesday's campaign finale.
A nurse turned politician, Hunter seems a suitable choice for voters in the desert's GOP-friendly 80th Assembly District: She is a moderate, pro-abortion rights Republican who is tough on crime and sympathetic to the laments of struggling business owners.
But because this is a politically wacky year, instead of coasting to election, Hunter is locked in a volatile battle with a scrappy Democrat waging a relentless and cunning campaign.
The burr beneath Hunter's saddle is Julie Bornstein, a Palm Desert attorney and local college trustee. Although most pundits call her the underdog, Bornstein bets that her desert connections and community service credentials will give her the punch she needs to knock off the better-financed Hunter.
"We haven't seen this sort of hot battle out here in quite awhile," Frank Cullen, a Palm Springs political consultant, said. "They are two aggressive, energetic campaigners throwing a lot of charges and countercharges around. I think it's anyone's guess who's going to come out on top."
Whatever the outcome, the contest is one of two exceptionally tight Assembly races in the southeastern reaches of California this fall. The other is raging nearby in Riverside County's 64th District, where Democrat Jane Carney and Republican Ted Weggeland are wrestling over an open seat.
The 80th District is a vast, arid territory that includes the eastern part of Riverside County and all of Imperial County. The big issue here, as elsewhere, is the economy. With home construction stalled and other industries operating at a limp, unemployment in Riverside County hovers around 14%. In Imperial County--a farm-rich region that has been battered by a whitefly infestation--the figure is higher.
Hunter, the mother of a grown daughter and wife of a Navy commander, says she is confident of victory, citing her campaign's polls, her reputation as "a fighter for my constituents," and bipartisan support.
Asked to list her legislative accomplishments, the assemblywoman called it "an unfair question" for a Republican, declaring that Democratic control of the Legislature has blocked passage of "my major bills on revisions of death penalty laws, health care and education reform."
"Willie Brown has a stranglehold on the Assembly," Hunter, 39, said in a refrain she repeats often at campaign stops. "I'm a member of the minority party, so when I carry a good bill, it gets stolen away by the Democrats."
Opportunity '92, the Republicans' statewide fund-raising organization, has made Hunter's reelection one of its top priorities, helping her collect close to $490,000 since early this year--more than twice the sum raised by her opponent. Several GOP heavyweights, including Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren and Gov. Pete Wilson, have trekked to the desert to add their support, though Hunter--perhaps aware of Wilson's sagging popularity in recent polls--is careful to distance herself from some of the governor's positions.
Despite Hunter's bold predictions of victory, there are a few jokers in this year's political deck that give Bornstein cause for optimism.
For starters, Hunter could be stung by anti-incumbent fervor. First sent to Sacramento after winning a special election in 1989, she is a relative newcomer to the Assembly and takes pains to distinguish herself from the image of political lifer.
Perhaps more ominous for Hunter are charges that she is a "carpetbagger" who only moved to the 80th District when the state's redrawn political map made her old district less hospitable. Previously, she represented the 76th District, which stretched from southern San Diego County to Palm Springs; about 60% of the 80th District is virgin territory for her.
"The carpetbagging issue seems to come up a lot, and she's had to work hard to introduce herself to the new parts of her district," said Cullen, the consultant. The dogged Bornstein, meanwhile, never skips an opportunity to remind voters that Hunter "moved 100 miles just to run for office."
Adding to the political tension are the gains Democrats have made in voter registration. Although the district's voters backed Wilson and President Bush, Democrats added 7,037 registered voters in the last four months, compared to 1,063 signed up by Republicans, and have a 47%-41% edge.
And then there is Bornstein. A desert dweller for more than eight years, she is married and has three children. Her resume is brimming with community service titles, including president of an affordable housing coalition, board member of the Desert AIDS Project and trustee of the Desert Community College District. Active for years in Democratic politics, Bornstein is reaping rewards from her party, which has sent her money and headliners such as state Treasurer Kathleen Brown to appear with her.