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Familiar Foes in a Contrast of Images, Focus


Tuesday's vote to elect the congressional representative from central Orange County is about a whole lot more than who can bring home the bacon.

With Republican Robert K. Dornan, one of the nation's most committed conservatives, running to regain the seat he lost two years ago to Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove), the outcome is seen nationwide as a test of the emerging power of the Latino vote as well as a referendum on the political future of one of the nation's most conservative counties.

"This race isn't about the minutiae of what their member of Congress can do for the district because in a sense the race is more symbolic than it is substantive," said Burdett Loomis, a University of Kansas political science professor.

"There is a feeling that [Sanchez and Dornan] represent the two sides of Orange County: Sanchez the growing, young immigrant culture and Dornan the older, politically conservative culture the place is known for," said Loomis, one of many observers keeping a close eye on the race.

Since 1996, when Sanchez defeated longtime congressman Dornan by just 984 votes, the battle line between the two visions of the district has been drawn.

At first the combat was about the election itself. In its aftermath Dornan refused to concede, claiming that illegal, noncitizen votes cost him the election. A House investigation found 14 months later that more than 700 illegal votes were cast, not enough to invalidate the election.

With the election challenge over, the rematch began in earnest, taking the foes cross-country seeking money and support. The contest has become not only one of the most closely watched congressional races in the country, but the most expensive this year. Between them, Dornan and Sanchez have raised more than $6.3 million.

Add to that the hundreds of thousands of dollars that Republican and Democratic parties and interest groups have poured into the race, and it sometimes seems that residents of the 46th Congressional District have room in their mailboxes for little more than Sanchez and Dornan campaign fliers.

On Tuesday, however, the choice for voters will be back to basics: a Democrat versus a Republican; a woman versus a man; a young political star versus a veteran politician; a representative more interested in fixing potholes than the defense budget versus one more focused on national and international affairs.

Dornan, 65, is a conservative who wears his beliefs on his sleeve. In Congress, he fought against federal funds for AIDS education, saying the money went for programs that promoted homosexuality. He proposed a bill limiting the role of women in combat. He helped pass a ban on abortions in military hospitals.

He was a major advocate of increasing military spending, leading the fight to save the B-1 bomber and other programs and helping pass legislation that raised pay for members of the armed forces. He marched on Washington with antiabortion-rights protesters and introduced a constitutional amendment to ban abortion.

Dornan also advocated the repeal of all income, corporate and inheritance taxes and the abolition of the Internal Revenue Service. A strong advocate of local school control and of school vouchers, he called for dismantling the U.S. Department of Education.

For 16 years a member of the minority, Dornan was stymied in many of his efforts to pass legislation. He never wrote a bill that stood on its own to become law. Nevertheless, he pushed through many measures as amendments to larger bills, advancing his national agenda and securing millions of dollars for crime-fighting, transportation, veterans programs and other projects in Orange County.

Legislation he introduced in 1989 establishing a program to attract recruits for police service in exchange for college scholarships was enacted into law as part of a 1994 crime bill. Dornan inserted language into a 1990 Defense Department bill authorizing the Navy to sell 77 acres at the Marine Corps Air Station at El Toro to the county for a freeway interchange.

"I think the main people I represent are the hard-working husband with good kids and a working wife to keep up with the growing taxes on them--working people just getting by from month to month with their money," Dornan said.

Sanchez, 38, sees the world and her district through very different lenses.

A moderate Republican turned moderate Democrat, Sanchez has pushed an image as a fiscal conservative. But on social issues, she votes consistently pro-abortion rights, pro-environment and pro-labor.

She voted against a ban on late-term abortions and against a bill requiring workers to take compensatory time instead of overtime pay. Neither bill passed. She also has voted in favor of increasing federal funds to public schools for construction and other projects.

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