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Irony Abounds as Tables Are Turned From '94

Both times, challenger accuses incumbent of being puppet of unpopular political figure in Washington. Democrats see the race as a chance to help them regain control of the House.


SAN DIEGO — Ah, the politics of turnabout. Or plus ca change, the more California's 49th Congressional District stays the same.

Two years ago, a brash challenger asked the district's voters to dump their first-term incumbent on grounds that the congresswoman was merely the puppet of an unpopular political figure in Washington. The strategy worked--even though the challenger was outspent 2 to 1.

Now, another brash challenger is asking voters in the district to dump a first-term incumbent on grounds the congressman is merely the puppet of an unpopular political figure in Washington. The challenger feels his strategy will work--even though he expects to be outspent 2 to 1.

"There is a certain irony here," concedes Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Imperial Beach), who in 1994 was the one asking voters to think national and send a message to Washington, but who now finds himself the incumbent saying that all politics are local.

Bilbray won his seat by convincing voters that the then-incumbent, Democrat Lynn Schenk, was voting against the best interests of her constituents because she owed fealty to President Clinton, whose popularity was plummeting in the wake of several political stumbles during the first part of his term.

This season, Bilbray, 45, is being challenged by Democrat Peter Navarro, 47, a Harvard-trained economist and associate professor in the graduate school of management at UC Irvine. Navarro is trying to convince voters that Bilbray is a vassal of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose approval rating during the past year went south with a vengeance.

The Bilbray seat is one of three in California held by Republican newcomers that the Democratic Party has targeted as particularly vulnerable as it bids to regain control of the House. The others are held by Andrea Seastrand of Shell Beach and Frank Riggs of Windsor in Northern California.

Bilbray also earns a spot on the Democratic hit list by virtue of being one of eight Republicans elected in 1994 with less than 50% of the vote. Indeed, he represents one of the nation's quintessential swing districts--voter registration is nearly even (42% Republican, 41% Democrat), and the percentage of independents and third-party devotees (17%) is among the highest of any congressional district in the country.

Home to Reaganesque Democrats and abortion rights Republicans, the district includes the northern half of San Diego and the cities of Coronado and Imperial Beach. Republican consultant John Kern said the 49th is "in San Diego County's war zone, caught between the Republican north and the Democratic south.

"The 49th is schizophrenic: conservative on taxes, moderate on civil rights and definitely pro-choice," Kern said. "It's a district that can go either way in any given election."

Samuel Popkin, professor of political science at UC San Diego, says the district is a microcosm of a larger political battle across the nation as a bumper crop of first-term House Republicans tries to stave off Democratic opponents who want to make the election a referendum on Gingrich.

"The single most used word in all of Bilbray's ads is 'local,' " Popkin said. "The words 'conservative,' 'Gingrich' and 'contract with America' are never used."

Indeed, Bilbray's campaign in 1996 is oddly redolent of Schenk's in 1994.

In one of Bilbray's television ads, he advises voters that he "stood up to Republicans." Two years ago Schenk's ads said she had "stood up to the president."

Bilbray is "on our side." Schenk was "doing what's best for San Diego."

One trend has to worry Bilbray, given Clinton's large lead in the polls, especially in California: For two elections in a row, the 49th District has followed the prevailing political trends.

In 1992, its voters supported Clinton for president (his percentage of the vote in the district virtually mirrored his national total). And in what had been dubbed the Year of the Woman, they made Schenk, a lawyer who had never held political office, the first woman sent to Congress from San Diego County.

But 1994 was the year of the GOP's "contract with America" and, in California, the anti-illegal immigration measure Proposition 187--both of which Bilbray endorsed heartily. Exit Schenk and enter Bilbray by a margin of 49% to 46%.

The Republican wave that gave the party control of Congress for the first time in 40 years now is being used against Bilbray. Navarro, in his stump speeches, charges that Bilbray's support for Gingrich puts him at odds with the district's average voter on issues such as abortion rights, environmental regulations, Medicare and funding for education.

"This election is the chance for San Diego to help return Gingrich to the back benches," Navarro says.

Bilbray responds, "Newt's got huge PR problems, but I think the Democrats are overplaying it."

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