None of the four candidates is confidently predicting victory in Tuesday's tight race for Assembly in the 72nd District in North County.
The one prediction everyone is making is that few voters seem to care.
While it is a crucial time to select a new Assembly member to go to a capital beset by political turmoil, people have virtually ignored this primary featuring three Republicans and a Democrat. As of Thursday, only about 6,500 absentee ballots had been cast in a district with nearly 180,000 registered voters, a discouraging development that has political observers predicting an all-time low election day turnout.
"Let's face it. We're in the dog days of summer and the last thing people want to think about is voting," said Robert Kiley, a political consultant and husband of Republican candidate Barbara Kiley of Yorba Linda. "A lot of people think that, with Measure R, they have already voted."
No doubt there is little distinct about the three favorites, all fiscal conservative Republicans who are nearly mirror-image on the issues. Each is hoping to parlay city council experience into a career in Sacramento.
Kiley, 48, is a Yorba Linda council member, and candidates Richard Ackerman, 52, an attorney, is a former Fullerton councilman and Chris Norby, 45, a history teacher at Brea Olinda High School, is currently on the Fullerton council.
Norby is hoping his visibility fighting the county's recent bankruptcy recovery plan, Measure R, and his push for school reform will win for him. Kiley's campaign is centered on Proposition 187, the immigration initiative she co-authored that won 68% of the vote in this district.
Ackerman hopes to ride the backing of most of the local political establishment, including state Sen. Ross Johnson (R-Irvine), who vacated the 72nd District seat, and U.S. Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton).
The Democrat, Shirley Hafner, 56, an administrator at UC Irvine Medical Center, has no political experience but a leg up on the others. If, as expected, none of the candidates gets more than 50% of the vote Tuesday, a runoff will be held Sept. 12 between the top Republican and Hafner, who gets in because she's the only Democrat.
Also deflating voter interest is the area's lack of political intrigue.
There hasn't been a real Assembly race in this part of the county in decades and there probably wouldn't be one now if term limits hadn't motivated 16-year veteran Johnson to move to Irvine to become a state senator.
What's more, there is little major industry in this residential North County district, which includes La Habra, Fullerton, Brea, Placentia, Yorba Linda and parts of Anaheim Hills and Buena Park.
"There are really no significant voting blocs here and no major pockets of minorities," said Mark Thompson, a consultant running the Norby campaign. "These are all bedrock community-type areas, although much of it with above-average incomes."
The race flared up briefly late last week with the Republican candidates trading accusations over lies allegedly being spread during telephone campaigning. The Kiley and Norby camps said Ackerman had a professional phone bank calling Republicans to solicit their vote in a disingenuous manner.
According to those two campaigns, the callers claimed Kiley and her husband have filed for bankruptcy and they "insinuated that we are deadbeats, that I have no financial responsibility whatsoever," Kiley said.
Kiley said she and her husband filed for a reorganization under Chapter 13 of the Bankruptcy Code. "The truth is we pay all our bills and have good credit," she said, adding that the recession hit their consulting business hard and they lost two of their largest accounts. "We made arrangements to keep our home and pay off our debt."
The callers also allegedly singled Norby out for "favoring an open border with Mexico, letting illegals into the country, and said he is married to an illegal alien," Thompson said.
Norby said the charge is based on a letter he wrote in a newspaper eight years ago that criticized immigration laws for sanctioning employers who hire illegal immigrants. Norby said his wife, who was born in China, is a legal resident and a member of the California Bar.
Ackerman rebutted the allegations on Friday, saying they are a last-minute attempt to smear him by claiming he is running a dirty campaign. He said his phone bank did target Kiley for filing bankruptcy and Norby's "liberal stand on immigration" because the claims are accurate.
In the waning days of the campaign, strategy for all three Republican candidates is the same: Track the voters who have consistently turned out in recent elections and contact them, either by phone or in person.
The winner will go to Sacramento and join an Assembly that could play a pivotal role in determining a recovery plan for Orange County's bankruptcy. The Assembly is also in the midst of a dogfight over Speaker Doris Allen (R-Cypress), whom Republicans accuse of siding with Democrats.
"It's a crapshoot at this point," he said. "All you can do is identify the people who are the hard-and-fast voters and make sure they know there is an election and they vote."
Times staff writer Peter Warren contributed to this report.