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Congressional Incumbents Take Leads

House: Most officeholders seem to be on the road back back to Washington, but Dornan, Harman and Brown remain in tough battles in their districts.


Most incumbents in congressional races appeared to be leading their challengers in the early vote count Tuesday night, as both Democrats and Republicans hoped to break the 26-26 tie and gain the edge in California's delegation to Washington.

A longtime member of Congress from each party--Democrat George E. Brown Jr. of San Bernardino, the dean of the state's delegation, and Orange County Republican Robert K. Dornan--were locked in tight races. Rep. Jane Harman (D-Rolling Hills), who was elected in a very close race two years ago, was running neck-and-neck with Republican Susan Brooks.

Brooks, who lost by just 812 votes in a 1994 election that wasn't decided until weeks after the election, sounded upbeat Tuesday night as it appeared the Republicans were holding onto their majority in the House.

"This better not be like last time," said Brooks, hugging and greeting volunteers at her headquarters.

Most of the state's 52 congressional districts were considered to be easy calls, with the incumbents being returned to Washington. In one of the two open seats, Republican Rich Sybert, a toy company executive and former member of Gov. Pete Wilson's administration, was believed to be facing stiff competition from Democrat Brad Sherman, a CPA and member of the State Board of Equalization, in a race to replace veteran Democrat Anthony C. Beilenson in the San Fernando Valley.

Republican Assemblyman James Rogan was slightly ahead of Democrat Doug Kahn in a contest for the seat being vacated by longtime Rep. Carlos J. Moorhead in a district that covers parts of Burbank, Glendale, Pasadena and surrounding communities.

Long Beach Democrats were hoping their candidate, environmental attorney Rick Zbur, would recapture the 38th District now represented by Republican Steve Horn.

Late Tuesday, Zbur was cautiously optimistic but said President Bill Clinton's early victory might hurt him on turnout.

"Our risk was that folks would give up [and not vote] given that Clinton was doing well," he said.

There was no dominant theme running through the tightest races, which were scattered in nearly every corner of California. Unlike 1992, when health care was a widespread concern, there appear to have been few make-or-break issues for voters.

Polls show that most voters believe that the economy is getting better, and people's attitude toward the Legislature and Congress is more positive than it has been in years. Crime rates are dropping, and all the major legislation that might have been developed into wedge issues was passed before this election, except for Proposition 209.

Lacking much grist to define their differences, candidates have fallen back on the old formulas. Democrats ran against extremism and House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Republicans struck at tax-and-spend liberals.

At least three GOP candidates used the emotional weight of the Polly Klass case to attack their opponents' positions on crime and capital punishment. The AFL-CIO spent a considerable chunk of its national $35-million advertising budget in California to run ads that attacked the records of GOP candidates.

After months of urging Republican congressional contenders to stay loyal to Bob Dole, the party leadership quietly gave approval for candidates to take a different tack. Suddenly, Republicans began urging voters: If Bill Clinton is going to win a second term in the White House, he needs a Republican Congress to keep him in check.

Similarly, Clinton--who for months had kept his distance from most congressional candidates--in recent weeks took advantage of his commanding lead by beginning to stump for down-ticket Democrats.

The president appeared in Santa Barbara with Walter Capps, a UC Santa Barbara religion professor seeking to unseat freshman Rep. Andrea Seastrand (R-Shell Beach), who beat Capps in 1994 by a mere 1,563 votes. Seastrand has close ties to Gingrich and the race was being watched nationally as a referendum on the aggressive freshman class and an example of the ideological clash between the two parties.

Clinton also campaigned in the 10th District with Ellen Tauscher, a wealthy investment banker who was seeking to unseat Bill Baker, a two-term Republican from Danville. Politically, the district leans toward Baker, who has represented it nearly 16 years--the first 12 in the Legislature. But he was being outspent 2 to 1 by Tauscher, who last week dumped $1.4 million of her own money into her campaign. Experts said a strong Democratic tide could nudge Tauscher to victory.

Another threatened Northern California Republican was Rep. Frank Riggs of Windsor, whose district of lush forests and rocky shorelines runs from the Oregon border down to the outskirts of the Bay Area.

Riggs won the 1st District in 1990, lost it in 1992 and won it back in 1994. He was on the ropes again, this time at the hands of Democrat Michela Alioto, 28, who stood out for two reasons: She was disabled as a teenager in a ski accident and is the granddaughter of a former San Francisco mayor.

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