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Embattled Reps. Kim, Calvert Lead Challengers; Bono Ahead : Congress: The two incumbents express confidence after being dogged by unfavorable stories. Former entertainer is among six Republicans seeking vacant Riverside County seat.


WASHINGTON — Freshmen Reps. Jay Kim (R-Diamond Bar) and Ken Calvert (R-Riverside), both burdened with unsavory political baggage, took early leads in their bids to retain their congressional seats in Tuesday's primary election.

Meanwhile, with more than half the vote counted, erstwhile entertainer Sonny Bono was ahead in the race for the Republican nomination in the 44th Congressional District in eastern Riverside County.

Kim faced four challengers in the 41st District, which includes parts of Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties. Political analysts had speculated that the large number of candidates opposing Kim, the first Korean American elected to Congress, could dilute the vote against him.

Kim's best-financed opponent, businesswoman Valerie Romero, attacked the incumbent on ethical grounds, hitting hard at the ongoing federal inquiry into possible violations of election, tax and labor laws.

Kim's early lead had him backslapping supporters at his campaign party in Diamond Bar.

"In spite of all the negative publicity I had, all the problems I had, they still have faith in me," Kim said of his supporters. "They want to send me back. You know what that means to me? I am absolutely, deeply touched. I can't ask more than that."

Last summer, the congressman became the target of the federal probe after The Times reported that he had used about $480,000 from his engineering corporation to finance his 1992 election campaign despite federal prohibitions.

Kim described the recent campaign as "very negative primarily from the L.A. Times." He added: "I was surprised how bitter it was . . . pictures, canceled checks, my coverage was bigger than Feinstein, bigger than any serial killer."

In western Riverside County's 43rd District, Calvert sought to overcome an embarrassing sex scandal. After months of denying it, in April he admitted having sex in his car in November with a woman police say is a known prostitute.

Calvert has since referred to the incident as a lapse in judgment after an emotionally trying year that included the death of his father and his divorce from his wife.

With more than half the vote in, Calvert led Republican opponent Joseph (Joe) Khoury, a UC Riverside business professor. Khoury tried to take political advantage of Calvert's encounter with the alleged prostitute. But Calvert struck back, claiming that Khoury is a carpetbagger whose primary residence is in Orange County--outside the congressional district, which covers western Riverside County.

As his small lead held into the early evening, Calvert said he was confident that he would win--perhaps by the largest margin he has ever enjoyed. "I have always been in close elections, so this is a landslide for me," he said.

If Calvert makes it into the general election, he will likely encounter a familiar face. Two years ago, he squeaked by Democrat Mark Takano by only 519 votes. Early returns showed Takano with a 2-1 lead over his nearest challenger.

Democrats have a 30-22 advantage in the California House delegation, the largest in U.S. history, but face some unpleasant realities of midterm election politics.

In other congressional races that have attracted notice, Republicans Susan Brooks and Ron Florance were locked in a bitter battle in the coastal 36th District, which runs from Venice to San Pedro, for the chance to meet first-term Democratic Rep. Jane Harman of Marina del Rey in the general election.

In the 24th District, encompassing the southwest San Fernando Valley, Malibu and the Thousand Oaks section of Ventura County, Republican Richard Sybert was thought to be the strongest of five GOP challengers seeking to oppose veteran Rep. Anthony Beilenson (D-Woodland Hills).

Sybert, a wealthy businessman and former director of planning and research for Gov. Pete Wilson, poured more than $400,000 of his own money into the campaign and is viewed as a potentially worrisome foe to Beilenson, whose district was made less safe in the 1990 redistricting.

Incumbents did not seek reelection in three of the state's House districts.

Freshman GOP Rep. Michael Huffington left open his 22nd District, centered in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, when he chose to run for his party's Senate nomination. Three Democrats and three Republicans vied to replace him. The district leans Republican but its independent-minded voters show a preference for environmental Democrats in the state Assembly.

Early returns showed Walter H. Capps leading the Democratic primary, and Andrea Seastrand ahead among the Republicans.

Rep. Al McCandless (R-La Quinta) announced his retirement, and his 44th District seat, encompassing the eastern Riverside County cities of Moreno Valley, Palm Springs, Indio and Blythe, was being sought by an array of three Democrats and six Republicans.

Bono, the former mayor of Palm Springs, is the best-known Republican candidate. He was trailed by GOP moderate Patricia (Corky) Larson.

"I think all of that rhetoric about me not being taken seriously is over," Bono said. "I was the most articulate candidate in this race and able to define the issues for the public."

Former Democratic Assemblyman Steve Clute took the early lead in his party's primary.

Also retiring is the dean of the state's delegation, Rep. Don Edwards (D-San Jose), who has served in Congress for 32 years. Six Democrats competed to replace him in the 16th District that leans heavily toward their party. They included former San Jose Mayor Tom McEnery and Santa Clara County Supervisor Zoe Lofgren.

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