Their four-year grudge match has had moments of suspense and ferocity, and both candidates seem ready for it to be over.
"I am going to be relieved to get this election over and to get back to work," said Rep. Jane Harman (D-Rolling Hills). "It's been very hard."
Her challenger, Susan Brooks, says she is satisfied that she waged a good fight.
"I was angry in '94," said Brooks, who also ran against Harman that year and then initiated a nearly yearlong court battle in an effort to unseat her. "But in '96, if voters know they have a choice and [Harman] is the choice they make, so be it. I will have done my bit."
The struggle for the 36th Congressional District, which runs along the coast from Venice to San Pedro, began after Harman defeated Republican Joan Milke Flores in 1992. Brooks, a former Rancho Palos Verdes city councilwoman who worked for Flores, decided she would run against Harman.
In the 1994 campaign, she used up all her personal savings in a tough battle that went down to the wire and beyond. Brooks actually won the vote count on election day, by a scant 93 votes, and flew back to Washington for a Republican victory party. She even appeared on national news shows as the apparent winner.
But as the counting of absentee ballots began, Harman took the lead. Harman was eventually declared the winner by an 812-vote margin, the closest congressional race in California that year.
Brooks refused to accept defeat and embroiled Harman in a bitter legal fight over what she said were suspicious ballots and "phantom" votes, a challenge that went on for nearly a year until Brooks finally dropped it. By then the 1996 election was fast approaching, and Brooks threw herself into the second challenge.
The political problem for Brooks, as she readily concedes, is that Harman has built up a powerful political machine over the last four years.
Harman has done a significant amount of bipartisan bridge building in Congress, working on coalitions to continue production of the C-17 cargo jet, built at the nearby McDonnell Douglas plant in Long Beach, and the B-2 bomber, which has many subcontractors in the district. She worked so closely with Republican Rep. Steve Horn of nearby Long Beach that the legislation to save the C-17 became known as the Harman-Horn amendment.
With support from the aerospace and defense industry, Harman has been able to take in enough in campaign contributions to significantly outspend Brooks.
Harman, a moderate Democrat, portrays the difference between her and Brooks as "mainstream versus extreme" a slogan she has adopted in television ads. Brooks says, "I support less taxes, less government and local control. Jane Harman supports more government, more taxes, and federal control."
Brooks supports the GOP "contract with America" and school vouchers. Harman opposes both. Brooks, who is supported by the National Rifle Assn., opposes gun control; Harman has supported a ban on assault weapons as well as the Brady Bill, which prohibits convicted felons from purchasing handguns.
With less than three weeks to go in the campaign, federal contribution and expenditure reports showed that Harman had $829,000 in cash ready for the closing drive, compared with $144,000 for Brooks. Harman had spent $374,000, compared to Brooks' $220,000.
Brooks, however, notes that Harman outspent her by a 5-1 margin two years ago and won by fewer than 1,000 votes. She says that although Harman has brought defense contracts into the district, she has voted with others in Congress on broad defense cuts.
"Overall, she shrinks the loaf and brings us home the crumbs," said Brooks.
Brooks said the Republican Party gave her $60,000, the maximum, and paid for two mailings.
The 36th District is almost evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats.
Brooks sometimes teaches special education classes in the county school system.
Harman once worked as a top aide to John Tunney, former U.S. senator from California, and did a stint with the Carter administration.
Two minor party candidates are also running in the 36th District. Bruce Dovner, a computer programmer from Torrance, is running as the Libertarian candidate. Bradley McManus, the Natural Law Party candidate, owns an investment business in Manhattan Beach.
"I'm not counting on winning," said Dovner, who got 332 votes in the primary. "What I'd like to do is send a message that civil liberties count."
McManus said he also is in the race to spread the word about his party's philosophy, which is that problems should be attacked at the root, before they develop.
Win or lose, Brooks said, she is satisfied.
"We got really close in '94, and when you come that close it is really hard to walk away," she said. "You don't want to look back on your life 20 years from now and ask, 'Why didn't I run?' "