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Preliminary Results Dashing Democrats' Hope for New Seat

Dead heat anticipated in 68th District fails to materialize as voters around the county seemed happy with status quo.


The most closely watched Assembly race in Orange County appeared Tuesday night not to be the dead heat anticipated, as preliminary results countywide favored incumbents or their party successors.

Analysts had given Democratic challenger Tina Laine in the central county's 68th District the most realistic chances of pulling an upset, but voters appeared to be sticking to the tried and true.

Four incumbents in the county's seven Assembly seats, including Laine's opponent, Republican Ken Maddox, took early leads, as did three GOP candidates for seats held by fellow Republicans.

Counting on demographic trends and recent political inroads in this most Republican of California counties, Democrats had pegged their hopes on Laine, a 44-year-old political newcomer, to pull off a surprise victory and solidify their majority in the state's Legislature.

The attorney and businesswoman from Garden Grove was among the Democratic underdogs in six Republican-dominated Assembly districts in Orange County.

She faced an uphill battle against Maddox, who won a close race in 1998 and garnered more than half the votes in March's open primaries.

But the slim margin of registered Republicans over Democrats in the district had given the challenging party some hope. Tuesday night, Laine was still holding onto that hope despite Maddox's large early margin.

"There is the moderate voter that tends to vote the issues rather than just the party line," she said from the Democratic gathering at Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim.

Democrats put more than $100,000 in resources behind Laine, a party official said. But Republicans said they were confident that Maddox, 36, would keep his seat, and they put an equal amount of resources behind their candidate.

"It is certainly better to have the numbers in this direction than the other," a confident Maddox said of the early results from the Republican gathering at Sutton Place Hotel in Newport Beach.

Both sides launched efforts in recent months that increased the number of registered voters in the district by nearly 20,000 to 168,213, according to the latest figures available. However, the percentage of registered Republicans to Democrats remained virtually the same, 41.27% to 39.38%.

Democrats, who lost their competitive foothold in Orange County more than two decades ago, are making small but steady gains here, said Fred Smoller, associate professor of political science at Chapman University in Orange. Latinos, the fastest-growing ethnic group in the county, are registering Democratic by a ratio of 9 to 1 in the county.

Democrats also seemed likely to keep or even increase their majority in the 80-seat state Assembly. They now hold 46 seats against the Republicans' 32. That means they will have the power to redraw the districts next year after the 2000 census results are in.

"Every day we are gaining more and more voters in Orange County," said Lou Correa, who became the first Latino and the only Democratic assemblyman from the county when he beat two-term Republican incumbent Jim Morrissey in 1998.

Correa was expected to beat Republican challenger Lou Lopez, 55, a retired police officer and former Anaheim city councilman. Correa's 69th District, which includes parts of Santa Ana, Anaheim, Garden Grove, Fountain Valley and Orange, is the only one in the county where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans.

The Democrats have had three success stories in the last four years, beginning with U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez's 1996 victory over conservative stalwart Robert K. Dornan. In 1998, Orange County sent two Democrats to the state Legislature: Correa and Sen. Joe Dunn, of Garden Grove.

But at least for now, the Republicans' grip in the county seemed safe. The Assembly elections were expected to mirror party registration numbers in the county, where the ratio of Republicans to Democrats is 3 to 2.

"I think my chances are pretty much what the party registration indicates," said resigned Democratic challenger Andy Hilbert, 34, of the 67th District.

Hilbert's opponent, Republican Tom Harman, a 58-year-old Huntington Beach city councilman and attorney, was expected to win easily in the district, which includes Cypress, Fountain Valley, Huntington Beach, La Palma, Los Alamitos, Rossmoor and Seal Beach. Incumbent Scott Baugh was termed out.

Two other Republicans were expected to replace GOP legislators retired by term limits: Lynn Daucher, 53, a Brea city councilwoman, was seeking to replace Dick Ackerman (R-Fullerton) in the 72nd Assembly District, which includes Brea, Fullerton, La Habra, Placentia and Yorba Linda. In the 70th District, now represented by Marilyn C. Brewer (R-Newport Beach), car dealer John Campbell, 44, of Irvine was expected to win.

The sprawling district includes Costa Mesa, Irvine, Laguna Beach and Newport Beach, plus parts of Tustin, Aliso Viejo and Laguna Hills.

Besides Maddox and Correa, two other incumbents were poised to be reelected: Bill Campbell (R-Villa Park) in the 71st District (Orange, Coto de Caza, Mission Viejo, Lake Forest) and Patricia Bates (R-Laguna Niguel) in the 73rd District (Dana Point, Laguna Niguel, San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano).


Times staff writers Christine Hanley, Meg James and Jean O. Pasco contributed to this report.

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