It's a political prize coveted by both major parties, a congressional seat discussed more often by Democratic and Republican strategists in Washington than by the voters deciding who sits there.
Seven Democratic candidates are competing for a chance to fill the seat soon to be vacated by a venerable Democratic congressman, Anthony C. Beilenson of Woodland Hills.
So are three Republicans, including one candidate who came close to bouncing Beilenson from office in a close election two years ago.
Although most voters have yet to focus on these candidates, party strategists are keeping close watch. They see the 24th Congressional District race as one of the pivotal contests this year that could determine which party controls the House of Representatives.
"We absolutely want to hold this seat," said Tricia Primrose of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "It is a very important part of the equation to win back a [Democratic] majority in the House."
The National Republican Congressional Committee has also targeted the oddly shaped district that resembles a giant bird, its wings outstretched from Thousand Oaks to Van Nuys, its body perched along the Malibu coast.
"This is an area of enormous opportunity for the Republican Party," GOP committee spokesman Craig Veith said. "This is a seat which we look to gain and strengthen our majority."
Both committees are prepared to lavish as much as $60,000 on their party's nominees, as soon as one emerges victorious from the March 26 primary.
With the primary only 16 days away, candidates are scrambling to reach as many of their party faithful as they can--all except Rich Sybert.
Sybert is banking on the name recognition he built up during the last election when he spent about $1 million--half of it his own money--to slug his way through a hotly contested Republican primary and then come within 3,536 votes of unseating the 20-year incumbent.
Unlike last time, Sybert's primary opponents have yet to mount an aggressive challenge:
Stephen C. Brecht
Brecht, an estate planner from Woodland Hills, portrays himself as "a real, live political outsider," with a conservative agenda closely aligned with the Republicans' Contract With America. Brecht acknowledges his campaign's limited reach. "I'm pretty much doing it all by myself."
K. Paul Jhin
Jhin, a Republican from Malibu, has thrown himself into the race with great passion to give something back to a country that has given him so much.
A Korean native who emigrated to the United States in 1955, Jhin has made the crackdown on illegal immigration a center point of his campaign: "Rather than having our troops in Bosnia, we ought to have our troops in California protecting our borders from immigrants trying to sneak in."
Sybert, meanwhile, has already begun positioning himself to appeal to all voters in November, not just the hard-core partisan Republicans expected to vote in the March primary.
It's smart politics, his friends and advisors say, in a congressional district with more registered Democrats than Republicans and during a time when polls show House Speaker Newt Gingrich with a higher public disapproval rating than President Richard Nixon had at the time of his resignation.
Sybert's political brochure stresses his independence and commitment to the community to fight for a fair and balanced budget, public safety and immigration reform. It mentions the word "Republican" only once, in small type, on the back flap.
"I am not a blind follower of any party," Sybert said in a recent interview. "I very much dislike the assumption that because you are a Republican or a Democrat, you are going to be marching lock-step to some piper offstage. I don't plan to go off to Washington as anybody's foot soldier."
At the same time, Sybert called himself "a loyal Republican and a conservative. I don't want people to think I'm equivocating or shilly-shallying."
The Democratic primary campaign has been a much more spirited affair, with seven candidates jockeying for position to become Beilenson's political heir.
To squeals of protest from his rivals, Sherman has managed to lock up most of the major endorsements from Democratic Party leaders and officeholders.
"I'm supporting him," Beilenson said last week. "I hope that Brad Sherman wins."
Sherman successfully courted Democratic leaders by arguing that he is the only proven candidate. He won a second term on the State Board of Equalization in 1994. And he has shown a willingness to pony up his own money. So far, he has loaned his campaign $275,000.
His campaign is preparing a flurry of political mailers to deliver the message that he has the experience to take on Gingrich, that he is a strong advocate for political reform and a champion for the middle class. And that he can win.