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ELECTION RETURNS : Late Absentee Ballots to Decide Brooks-Harman Race : Congress: GOP trend boosts challenge to first-term congresswoman, who trails by 93 votes. Horn, other local incumbents win handily.


The South Bay's most competitive and closely watched congressional race lived up to its billing as the contest between Rep. Jane Harman (D-Rolling Hills) and Republican Susan Brooks remained too close to call as of Wednesday.

Although Harman clung to hopes that she would survive the nationwide GOP trend that marked Tuesday's election, she trailed Brooks and could be headed for defeat.

With all of the precincts in the 36th Congressional District counted, Harman was 93 votes behind Brooks out of nearly 165,000 ballots cast. An undetermined number of absentee ballots--perhaps hundreds--are left to be counted, and Harman's campaign remained hopeful that it could put her ahead.

"We're going to wait for the votes to get counted," said Harman's campaign spokesman, Roy Behr. "It's too early to tell."

Brooks' campaign was optimistic, however, pointing out that the Rancho Palos Verdes councilwoman had an eight percentage point margin over Harman in about 14,000 absentee ballots counted on Tuesday.

If Brooks wins, it would be an upset. Harman outspent her opponent by more than 2-to-1 as of Oct. 19 and was the only congressional candidate in Los Angeles County to air commercials on local broadcast stations. The race was expected to be close, but most political observers expected Harman, who had worked hard to consolidate her hold on the district, to prevail.

For her part, Brooks gained a reputation as a pugnacious, outspoken campaigner. And she matched Harman with cable television ads and a few attack mailers in the waning days of the campaign.

Going into Tuesday's vote, Democrats enjoyed a 30-22 advantage over Republicans in California's House delegation. If Brooks' lead holds up, the breakdown will be even--26 Democrats and 26 Republicans.

In other South Bay races, Rep. Steve Horn (R-Long Beach) trounced Cypress College professor Peter Mathews. Rep. Walter R. Tucker III (D-Compton), under indictment on charges he accepted bribes while mayor of Compton, won reelection, as did Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles).

The Harman-Brooks race attracted national party leaders from both sides to the district. Some pundits called it a quintessential matchup between a freshman incumbent, elected on Clinton's coattails in 1992, and a challenger who tried to capitalize on an anti-Clinton backlash.

At Brooks' campaign party at the Doubletree Hotel near Los Angeles International Airport, workers were jubilant as a four-piece band played Dixieland music when Tuesday night's returns showed a victory within reach.

"If there has ever been a referendum on Clinton, this is one," Brooks said as it became clear that her party would win both houses of Congress. Of her own tight race, she said: "That's what happens when you run a colorful race and get in somebody's face."

As Harman's supporters watched the GOP machine sweep to the West Coast on Tuesday night, enthusiasm dampened at their party at the Radisson Hotel in Manhattan Beach.

"People are angry, and I think for the most part we are seeing a protest vote," Harman said.

If she loses after the absentee ballots are counted, it would end what many South Bay aerospace executives praised as a promising start in Congress. They shunned Brooks in the race and instead backed Harman, who gained seats on the House Armed Services and Science, Space and Technology committees.

But House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), in line to be the next Speaker of the House, pledged to find spots on those committees for Brooks as well.

If she wins, Harman said Tuesday night: "We're going to have bipartisan government. I'm ready for that. I operate that way. I don't think that hurts my ability to help the South Bay."

Harman acknowledged as early as last spring that it would be a tough battle in the district, which stretches from Venice to San Pedro and where voter registration is split almost evenly between Democrats and Republicans. Almost from the day she was elected, she began amassing a campaign war chest.

That helped her in the closing days of the campaign, when she fired off a series of last-minute mailers, including one that questioned whether Brooks really favored abortion rights. Another suggested that Brooks abused perks on the Rancho Palos Verdes City Council, including a vote to buy seven new council chairs for $6,000. Rancho Palos Verdes officials, however, say the city ended up spending only $2,300 on the seven chairs.

Harman also waited until late last week to announce that she opposed Proposition 187, which will deny benefits to illegal immigrants, and her position was not widely publicized.

Her campaign crowed about its Republican crossover support, including almost all of the South Bay's aerospace executives. The industry leaders praised Harman--a former aide to President Jimmy Carter--for drawing on her Washington connections to come through for the district. Among them was then-Defense Secretary Les Aspin, whom she lobbied in 1993 to keep the Los Angeles Air Force Base off the closure list.

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