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California and the West | CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / 46TH

Dornan's Message to Voters: 'I'm the Real Latino'

The challenger says his views on abortion and family values give him a stronger bond with group's voters than incumbent Sanchez.


Walking the streets of Santa Ana's barrios and sprinkling his speeches with broken Spanish, Bob Dornan is out to do what his foes say he can't: woo Latino voters away from U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez.

The Garden Grove Republican has opened a satellite campaign office in Santa Ana to help him win a chunk of the largely Catholic Latino vote. Last month, he peppered the central Orange County district with his first major mailer of the fall campaign: an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe on the cover with graphic portrayals of abortion procedures inside.

"I'm the only true Latino in this race," Dornan has taken to saying, contending that his Catholic upbringing and emphasis on family values give him more in common with Latino voters than Sanchez. The congresswoman's Mexican American heritage helped her pick up overwhelming Latino backing two years ago, but she veers away from Catholic orthodoxy in her support of abortion rights.

Democrats chortle at the idea of Dornan going for the Latino vote. In Congress, he voted against many of the social and educational programs that tens of thousands of Latinos in his district rely on.

But the challenger and his Republican allies believe the new tactic can work. Dornan figures he can win if he can pick up even a fraction of the Latino vote by appealing to Latino Catholics on hot-button issues like abortion and still maintain support among Republican whites.

Dornan has "all this other baggage that may make this strategy unworkable, but he's got to try to appeal to Latino voters," said Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at UC San Diego.

"It's recognizing that when you go hunting, you go where the ducks are. Suddenly, these people are voting, and they're not voting for him; and he wants to see if he can get some of those votes himself."

Dornan has to overcome Latino animosity to his fierce campaign to regain his seat, a battle in which he alleged that hundreds of noncitizens, mainly Latinos, voted illegally. An investigation into the charges by the House Oversight Committee found improper ballots, but not enough to overturn the election.

The challenge was widely perceived by Latinos as an affront. Hundreds rallied to defend Sanchez.

Dornan's current effort to bring Latinos to his side with such mailers as the Virgin of Guadalupe brochure smacks of hypocrisy, his opponents say.

"Maybe he thinks that's a clever way of gaining sympathy from a particular ethnic group, but I think it's patronizing," said Rep. Esteban Edward Torres (D-Pico Rivera).

Sanchez spokesman Lee Godown called Dornan's mailer "bad strategy."

"I don't think you convince people you're for family values when you denigrate a revered saint of the Catholic Church by printing her likeness on a mailing that has some pretty disgusting pictures on the inside," Godown said.

"He's describing himself as the true Latino and demonstrating it by making a mockery of a saint? He's getting real bad advice from whoever's advising him."

Two independent polls by Chapman University show Sanchez with a sizable lead over Dornan. The first poll in June showed Sanchez ahead by 21 percentage points. The margin dropped to 15 points in Chapman's second poll, released last week.

More than a third of those polled were undecided, which means the race could become much closer by election day, Nov. 3.

Dornan acknowledges that his own polling shows him trailing Sanchez. But he says his Catholic roots and his stance against abortion should earn him the votes of enough Latinos to make up the difference in the race.

However, his own outspokenness could do him in.

Dornan got in trouble last month, for example, when he was quoted as saying that he is in favor of posting volunteer "election observers" at polls Nov. 3. Such observers are legal and both parties use them, but the very idea has been a sore point among Orange County voters who remember a poll guard scandal.

In 1988, the GOP hired uniformed security guards to stand at largely Latino polling places with signs in English and Spanish stating: "Noncitizens can't vote." An ensuing civil rights lawsuit was eventually settled for $400,000.

Dornan's challenge of the 1996 election angered many Latinos and evoked memories of the poll guard incident.

Against that backdrop, Dornan's remark last month that senior citizens and young people should volunteer as election observers at the polls was explosive. Democrats from Sacramento to Washington responded with fury.

"Once again, Orange County Republicans are clearly trying to intimidate Hispanic voters," said Phil Angelides, a former state Democratic Party chairman now running for state treasurer.

Dornan denies that the voter fraud issue is targeted at Latinos.

"If I reach out to [Latinos] and say, 'Register, please register legally, and please vote for me,' then I'm not trying to suppress people from voting," he said. "I'm saying I want to compete for your vote."

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