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California and the West | THE WASHINGTON CONNECTION
/ MARK Z. BARABAK

22nd District Race Bypasses Scandal

March 03, 1998|MARK Z. BARABAK

Monica who?

The ingratiating intern may have set prosecutorial hearts racing and sent the White House pacing, spawning a one-woman industry in high-end gossip and low-brow humor. But in the first congressional campaign to be conducted in the wake of l'affaire Lewinsky, Monica has been decidedly moot.

Democrat Lois Capps and Republican Tom Bordonaro are vying for the right to succeed Capps' late husband, Walter, as the representative from California's 22nd Congressional District, reaching north from Santa Barbara almost to Monterey. One week from the election, Capps is clinging to a modest lead in the race to fill out her husband's term, according to private polls.

The candidates are talking about education, tax reform, health care and the environment, a perennial concern along the scenic Central Coast. Outsiders have injected abortion and congressional term limits into the debate. No one, however, is bringing up President Clinton and the relationship he did or did not have with Monica Lewinsky. No one seems to care.

"I'm running against Lois Capps . . . not Bill Clinton's moral or immoral behavior," said Bordonaro, seated Patton-like in front of a giant American flag in his campaign headquarters, across from Paso Robles' old-fashioned town square.

"People are focused on issues here on the Central Coast," Capps said after stopping at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon in Arroyo Grande. "This is a local election."

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Just the same, it also happens to be the kickoff contest of the 1998 campaign--and the fight for control of Congress--which makes it a focus of inordinate attention across the country. "It's really a kind of laboratory to see how different issues might play elsewhere," said one Democratic strategist in Washington.

The result of this proving-ground politics can be rather odd. Last week, for instance, a national abortion rights group launched a television advertisement attacking an antiabortion group for its television ad--without ever mentioning any of the candidates in the race.

Just as odd, it seems, is the absence of any serious discussion of the president's alleged peccadilloes and their various investigative offshoots. Even such reliably anti-Clinton foes as the Christian Coalition and conservative values maven Gary Bauer, while actively working on Bordonaro's behalf, have taken a pass on the matter.

Bauer's Washington-based Campaign for Working Families ("a pro-family, pro-life, pro-free enterprise political action committee") has spent $200,000 on TV advertising to make late-term abortion a central issue in the contest. But when it comes to Clinton's actions, "the facts still aren't apparent," Bauer said. "The issue won't have any political weight until the American people decide what did or didn't happen between the president and Miss Lewinsky."

It's not as though people are oblivious. At last week's meeting of the Santa Ynez-Solvang Rotary Club, there were plenty of snickers when a member passed around snapshots of a visit to Northern California's Benbow Inn. "Not to be mistaken for the 'Bimbo Inn,' " chimed one wise guy. "Watch out," came the retort across the banquet room. "Ken Starr will subpoena them!"

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It's not as if people don't take the matter seriously (at least some of them, anyhow). "It's a little embarrassing to have a leader not able to manage his personal affairs better," said Art Kaslow, 40, a Solvang dentist.

"The thing that bothers me more than anything is suborning perjury," said Rick Zander, 53, a veterinarian and fellow Rotarian. "If it's true, that's inexcusable."

Having said that, neither intends to base his vote on any of the salacious stuff coming out of Washington, which makes them like most of the voters of the 22nd District, if polling and the anecdotal evidence can be believed.

Neither man raised the matter until asked; in two days of campaign events across the district, the only time the subject surfaced was in a pair of joking references. And that profound indifference, more than all the high-minded talk of fairness and withholding judgment by Clinton's opponents, may explain why the president's trials have failed so far to become a partisan tribulation.

As Todd Harris, the press secretary for Bordonaro, pointed out, "It's hard to go after Lois Capps and try to hold her responsible when voters aren't even holding the president responsible."

Much can change, of course, between now and the November general election. Arne Owens of the Christian Coalition, which plans to distribute 100,000 voter guides in churches across the district Sunday, said that after "great internal discussion" the organization had decided not to weigh in on the Clinton-Lewinsky matter for the time being. "We may very well in the future," Owens added.

But for now, perhaps the most striking thing about this closely watched contest is not all the issues being test-marketed on California's Central Coast. Rather, it may be the one issue that everyone has conspicuously chosen to ignore.

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