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Sanchez Overtakes Dornan, Appears to Win House Race

Politics: She is 929 votes ahead with 1,000 left to count. Incumbent alleges irregularities, plans to seek recount.


SANTA ANA — In a stunning turnabout, Democrat Loretta Sanchez took an apparently insurmountable lead over outspoken Republican Robert K. Dornan in the race for the 46th Congressional District as absentee ballots were counted Tuesday.

Sanchez, who had been behind by 233 votes after last Tuesday's election, moved 929 votes ahead of Dornan with only about 1,000 left to count, and she appears impossible to beat.

"Goliath has been slain and David, in the name of Loretta, is on the way to Washington," said Sanchez's campaign manager, John Shallman, moments after the numbers were released by the registrar of voters late in the afternoon.

Dornan, the fiery conservative who has held the seat for 12 years, conceded that it would be extremely difficult to make up the vote deficit with the remaining ballots. But he said he has no intention of surrendering his position without a fight.

Dornan said Sanchez "ran a dirty campaign and she is unqualified."

"I want an investigation from the House Oversight Committee to interview the people who registered wrongly and find out if they registered," he said.

"I'm a little surprised at the number of ballots from Santa Ana," said Dornan, who spoke by telephone from home. He said he suspected that large numbers of noncitizens voted.

Registrar Rosalyn Lever earlier had said that such widespread fraud was unlikely.

Chris Sautter, a consultant with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee who came to Orange County to observe the count, said Dornan's claims will not hold up.

"I think history is against him," Sautter said.

Dornan is offering "just some vague allegations," Sautter said. "For Congress to get involved at a level that would change the outcome of this election is highly unlikely."

But Sallie Dornan, the incumbent's wife and campaign manager, said her husband is not about to concede and will demand a recount. "He may make up the difference," she said.

Bob Dornan gained a reputation for uncompromising opposition to abortion, communism, gay rights and gun control during his 18 years in Congress. He was known for blustery rhetoric and, in the last four years, for his in-your-face challenges to President Clinton, whom he called a womanizer, a liar, a drug abuser and a draft dodger.

The absentee count also closed the gap between Democrat Lou Correa and Republican incumbent Jim Morrissey in the 69th Assembly District. Correa moved to within 308 votes of Morrissey, who had been leading by about 1,400 votes before Tuesday.

Supporters of Sanchez and Dornan had been waiting anxiously for a week as the registrar's office verified signatures and prepared tens of thousands of late-arriving absentee ballots that arrived Nov. 5 and 6.

There were 68,000 late absentee ballots countywide, about 10,000 of which were in the 46th District. The registrar's office didn't expect results until this afternoon. But at 4 p.m. Tuesday, Lever surprised the gathering of two dozen reporters and political observers, including several observers from Washington, with her announcement of Sanchez's lead.

About 9,000 absentee ballots were counted in the 46th District, she announced, leaving only about 1,000 to be counted today. The new count, as of Tuesday night, had Sanchez leading with 46,270 votes to Dornan's 45,341.

The district, according to 1990 census figures, is about 49% Latino, 13% Asian and 38% white.

Sanchez appeared Tuesday at the office of her campaign chairman, Wylie A. Aitken, to champagne and loud applause from campaign workers and local Democratic party officials. She seemed numb with disbelief. "I think we won," she said in response to a question. "We did win, didn't we?" she asked a campaign worker.

House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) called Sanchez on Tuesday evening and spoke to her for about five minutes. "It's great to be a Democrat in Orange County tonight," Sanchez told him. "We're really celebrating here."

Highlighting the importance of the Dornan-Sanchez race, Clinton personally promoted her candidacy at a Santa Ana rally in mid-October.

Sanchez said she planned to be in Washington on Thursday for the orientation of freshmen members of Congress.

Times staff writers Matt Lait and Lee Romney contributed to this story.

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