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State Senate Race Viewed as a Toss-Up


WEST SAN GABRIEL VALLEY — Democrat Jim Costa, a horseback-riding Assembly member from the state's agricultural heartland, is heading down an unfamiliar campaign trail as he seeks to round up a big voter turnout in parts of Pasadena and Altadena in his bid for a state Senate seat.

Costa, a veteran lawmaker from rural Hanford, Calif., needs strong support from these voters to have any hope of winning the 16th Senate District seat, which sprawls from the edge of the Rose Bowl to Bakersfield and areas of the San Joaquin Valley.

And to attract area Democrats to the polls in Tuesday's low-key special election, Costa is playing his party's top card: Bill Clinton.

Trying to capitalize on Clinton's perceived popularity in heavily Democratic and African-American precincts in the San Gabriel part of the district, Costa has mailed out appeals from the President.

Costa's Republican foe in the Senate race is former Assemblyman Phillip D. Wyman, who last year lost a hotly contested San Fernando Valley-area congressional race.

Wyman views the Bakersfield area--which he represented in the Assembly--as the key to his chances, and he has been beaming television advertisements there from his own big-name backers: former U.S. drug czar William Bennett and unsuccessful U.S. Senate candidate Bruce Herschensohn. In addition, the state's top two Republican elected officials, Gov. Pete Wilson and Atty. Gen. Daniel Lungren, have stumped for Wyman.

As the campaign comes down to the wire, both sides say they view it as a toss-up.

Costa, 41, narrowly edged Wyman, 48, in a primary election last month that featured 11 candidates on the ballot. But since no one received more than 50% of the votes, Costa, the highest Democratic vote-getter, and Wyman, the top Republican finisher, were thrown into Tuesday's runoff to replace former Sen. Don Rogers (R-Tehachipi).

After legislative districts were redrawn following the 1990 Census, Rogers last year ran and won another Senate district, leaving about 19 months remaining on the four-year term for his old seat.

Although dramatically different boundaries will take effect for the 16th district for next year's November election (for instance, its Los Angeles County precincts will be eliminated), state law dictates that Rogers' former seat be filled.

And in Tuesday's vote, Larry Sheingold, a Costa campaign consultant, said he expects Pasadena and Altadena voters to have a major say--directly if they turn out, indirectly if they don't--about the outcome.

"It's not likely Costa will win if the turnout stays at 9%," as it was among the local voters for the primary, Sheingold said.

He added: "So, we're doing everything we can to tell them who Costa is and why Wyman is unacceptable."

A key part of that effort are the mailers featuring Clinton--among the first sent out under his signature on behalf of a candidate since he assumed the presidency.

In one of the mailers, Clinton trumpets Costa as part "of the effort to implement our plan for economic change," and reminds voters that Wyman is opposed to abortion rights.

The mailers are not being sent to prospective voters in most other parts of the district outside the San Gabriel area. Asked why, Sheingold would merely say that Costa has other endorsements he would rather tout to voters in these more conservative areas.

Wyman, for his part, maintained that Costa "must really be worried to get the President of the United States to bail him out."

Overall, about 45,000 registered voters out of the district's total of 353,000 live in the Pasadena or Altadena areas.

The two candidates, both elected to the Assembly in 1978, are receiving substantial financial support from their respective parties. Costa has reported contributions of nearly $600,000, including $120,000 from the California Democratic Party for mailers. Through the middle of the month, Wyman reported $240,000 in contributions, including $68,000 from the California Republican Party for postage and printing costs.

In search of votes, the candidates have been ranging throughout the district and have made several joint appearances, including a televised debate.

During the campaign, Costa has accused Wyman of hypocrisy for having voted against legislative pay raises during his time in the Assembly, but then accepting the wage increases anyway.

The Wyman campaign, meanwhile, has charged that Costa has sought to fool voters by positioning himself as more of a conservative than his voting record indicates.

The party breakdown in the 40-member Senate is now 22 Democrats, 14 Republicans and two Independents. Two seats are vacant.

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