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California and the West | CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / 46TH
CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT

Roles Are Reversed This Time Between Sanchez and Dornan

For the challenger, the race has become a crusade with his family at his side. For the incumbent, the political establishment is now behind her.

September 20, 1998|ESTHER SCHRADER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GARDEN GROVE — The challenger is talking strategy in his headquarters with a top advisor. "Dad," the advisor says, waving a sign, "should we put another one up on the door outside?"

Two miles away, in the incumbent's local campaign office, the political operatives are too busy to worry about signs. What's more important is this week's media buy. And there are key calls to make: singer Jackson Browne's agent, the campaign consultants, the pollsters.

It is another day in the battle to represent California's 46th Congressional District in central Orange County, one of the most closely watched and most expensive races in the country this fall.

But in the topsy-turvy rematch between conservative career politician Robert K. Dornan and Rep. Loretta Sanchez, who defeated him two years ago, nothing is as it seems.

It is the Latina political newcomer who is backed by a political machine made up of Washington insiders and big money. And it is Dornan, with 18 years of right wing merciless oratory in Congress under his belt, who is playing upstart--his budget thin, his campaign operation loose, his loyal children lined up behind him like a phalanx.

"It's not even two campaigns. It's a campaign and a crusade," said Paul Herrnson, a University of Maryland professor and expert on congressional elections.

"Loretta Sanchez is running on incumbency and a carefully calibrated set of issue positions," he said. "She has a brain trust of political pros. She is the establishment candidate. She is doing it the way it is normally done. Dornan is definitely the underdog. He's got a family operation. Given their respective backgrounds, it's an ironic switch, to say the least."

Campaigns Are From Two Different Worlds

In 1996, Sanchez scored one of the most unexpected upsets in recent congressional history. The then-political novice defeated the Republican known for his vitriolic attacks on President Clinton, homosexuals and others. The rematch promised to test the mettles of each politician and serve as a referendum on Orange County's shifting political scene.

Back then, Sanchez was such a new commodity that at the Democratic National Convention a group of well-heeled Orange County Democrats had to "tow her around meeting everybody, hoping somebody would take her seriously," recalled Laguna Beach lawyer Howard Adler, one of those backers.

These days Sanchez, with more than $1.1 million in her campaign war chest, is all business. The congresswoman, buffed to a fine political sheen by two years as the latest star of her party, had raised more money by the end of June than any other Democrat in the House except Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt.

Then there is the Dornan campaign.

Son Mark, 39, a commercial property manager by trade, is campaign manager. He sleeps on a futon in the campaign office. Daughter Theresa Cobban, 40, helps out with the prodigious Dornan direct mail fund-raising effort in between chasing her children at her suburban Virginia home. Robin Dornan, 42, puts together fund-raisers for her father from a cramped desk in her San Juan Capistrano house.

Kate Dornan, 37, handles the small contributions that trickle into the campaign from conservatives, mostly from out of state.

By the end of June, the campaign had raised almost $1 million but had spent much of it on a direct mail operation. Dornan had less than $4,500 in the bank. He received $320,526 from a House committee this month to cover the costs of his failed bid to overturn his 1996 election defeat, yet he still holds less than a third of the money Sanchez has.

In the political style war, Sanchez, 38, is hard to beat.

She is now accustomed to hobnobbing with the president and Hollywood stars, and her campaign is suffused with a Washington attitude of "been there, done that."

Two years ago, her campaign had no press secretary, one paid staff member and, until late in the game, neither much money nor much support among nationally recognized Democrats.

"It was a different world," recalled John Shallman, her campaign manager and jack of all trades that year. "We spent most of our time just trying to convince Democrats that our race was winnable."

This year, the Sanchez campaign has more than a dozen paid staff members and many more volunteers.

There is campaign manager Stuart Durst, imported from West Virginia by way of more than a decade in Washington. He has run 19 campaigns since 1982 for candidates from coast to coast and knew next to nothing about Sanchez until he was hired.

There is campaign press spokesman Lee Godown, who doubles as press secretary for Sanchez the congresswoman and who has worked for four members of Congress. The screen saver on his computer repeats the political professional's mantra: MESSAGE. "You know, in Washington, the message is everything," Godown said, grinning.

With that maxim constantly playing in their minds, the political professionals are shaping every Sanchez utterance.

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