When San Diego County Supervisor Bill Horn told local supporters he would seek the Republican nomination for Senate, some at first thought the prominent avocado rancher meant the state Senate--not the U.S. Senate.
Former aide Ernie Cowan said he was "flabbergasted" at Horn's announcement a year ago. "We looked at possibilities in the Assembly, state Senate and congressional races," he said. "The U.S. Senate was not even on the radar screen."
Now Horn is one of three Republicans in the March 7 primary vying for the right to challenge Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein in November.
In addition to being relatively unknown outside his rural San Diego County district, Horn has a collection of life experiences that make it difficult to define who he is.
He is a self-made millionaire and a fiscal conservative who acknowledges that the budget of his supervisor's office is the biggest in the county.
He is a decorated Vietnam veteran who conceded recently that his campaign Web site "mistakenly" listed the Silver Star--the third-highest honor for bravery.
Although he is a former civil rights activist, he opposes gay rights, and he vehemently opposes gays in the military.
"I never got any gays in my unit, ever," said Horn, who served as a Marine artillery battery commander. ". . . I want the people defending me to be the best there is. I don't want any other ancillary kind of problems, whether or not they use their pinky finger."
His track record also includes local controversies and missteps that raise questions about the improper mixing of political activity and his official duties.
As a supervisor, he placed his campaign manager on his county payroll for 11 weeks after his 1998 reelection. And he used a county e-mail system in violation of county policy to invite employees to a lunchtime prayer session.
During his Senate campaign, a county Web site was linked to his campaign Web page, which included a solicitation for political contributions.
"What's the damage? I'm a politician. I get elected. People should know all there is to know about me," Horn said after first denying that the two sites were linked.
A similar linkage became an issue in his 1998 reelection, and he pledged that it would not happen again. "I have always kept my campaign activities separate from my duties as supervisor," he said.
In an interview, when a reporter pointed out that his Senate campaign page was linked to the county site, Horn blamed the board clerk for doing it without his authorization. However, board clerk Tom Pastuszka said the supervisors maintain their own county Web sites.
U.S. Senate rules prohibit the use of government-funded Web sites for "partisan, political and campaign purposes."
The Federal Election Commission would not comment specifically on Horn's campaign activities. But a spokesman said that if a government-operated Web site was used for political activity, then the value of the service could constitute an in-kind campaign contribution and should be reported.
San Diego County Counsel John Sansone said there is no policy preventing Horn from linking his campaign Web page to the county Web site. But, after being contacted by The Times, he warned Horn's office that the link could create the appearance of impropriety. Horn later removed the link.
Horn, 57, is a blunt but amiable born-again Christian who has worked with the poor and studied Hebrew to better understand the Bible.
A wealthy farmer from Valley Center, he is a past director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau. The father of three also served on the Escondido school board for four years. He survived a recall attempt after taking a free-speech stand and fighting a proposal to ban the Arthur Miller play "Death of a Salesman" from schools.
As a property rights advocate, he was elected supervisor in 1994. And he has consistently taken positions against gun control, and for stronger immigration laws and prayer in school.
Polls have consistently shown him trailing Rep. Tom Campbell (R-San Jose) for the GOP nomination in the March 7 primary. He lent his campaign $300,000, and he reported $193,000 in contributions through December.
Even without broad support, Horn moves ahead in what some Republican insiders see as a quixotic quest to be senator.
"I love the guy, but Bill isn't politically savvy enough," said Cowan, Horn's former press aide and a supporter. "Bill would be a noisy gong in the Senate. . . . You can count Bill to remain firm on issues he cares most about."
Horn said he is running to strengthen national defense. Feinstein, he said, "is the best ambassador Red China ever had" and has not taken its military threat seriously. Feinstein has enjoyed good relations with Chinese leaders since her days as mayor of San Francisco, and her husband has done business in the country.
Horn has a compassionate side that few know.