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California and the West | CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / CONGRESS

Democrats Again Target Bilbray's 49th District

Ahead in voter registration, they seek to convince voters that he's an ultraconservative who is out of step with moderate San Diego.

October 04, 2000|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Rep. Brian Bilbray has a favorite explanation of what it is like to represent the 49th Congressional District during election season.

"It's like that cartoon of a deer with a target on its back, and another deer saying, 'Bummer of a birthmark,' " said Bilbray.

Bilbray should know. He's played both roles: deer and hunter.

In 1994, as an anti-illegal immigration hard-liner and dedicated tax-fighter, the three-term Republican county supervisor ousted one-term Democrat Lynn Schenk.

The national Democratic Party has neither forgotten nor forgiven. For the third election season in a row, the national party has targeted Bilbray for defeat by providing money, strategy and big-name support for his Democratic challenger.

Lured by a tantalizing--although thin--voter registration lead, the Democrats have put the 49th on a list of six districts nationwide they feel they can wrest from Republican incumbents.

Democrats hold a 39%-37% registration edge over Republicans--changed from a 40%-40% split in 1998--in a district that includes six universities, seven military installations, a large stretch of coastal and northern San Diego, and the cities of Imperial Beach and Coronado.

Termed-out Assemblywoman Susan A. Davis is trying to do what economics professor Peter Navarro (1996) and San Diego Councilwoman Christine Kehoe (1998) could not: convince voters that Bilbray is an ultraconservative who is out of step with a moderate district.

"Brian is a chameleon," Davis said. "He talks moderate in San Diego but votes conservative in Washington."

Early indications are that Davis, 56, is a formidable opponent.

She has matched Bilbray, 49, in fund-raising. Polls suggest that the two are in a dead heat. Davis boasts more volunteers in her campaign than Kehoe, who used a walking brigade to come within 2 percentage points of beating Bilbray.

But Democrats are not taking anything for granted.

"Brian Bilbray's record is a litany of opponents who underestimated him," said Vince Hall, former top aide to Rep. Bob Filner (D-San Diego) and Gov. Gray Davis. "He's very, very crafty at how he shapes his message."

It is a big-money race, with each candidate raising $1.2 million by early June, when the most recent campaign statements were filed.

Bilbray is getting help from pharmaceutical companies, oil and energy companies, and medical political action committees. He enjoys strong support from the San Diego Union-Tribune's editorial page, and newspaper owner Helen Copley and her son, David, are Bilbray contributors.

Davis--no relation to the governor--is supported by unions, teachers and EMILY's List, a national group that backs women who support keeping abortion legal.

"We have a chance in the 49th District to change the course of this country," said Sharon Davis, the governor's wife, at a fund-raising gathering.

Taking a cue from the national party's playbook, Susan Davis has made prescription drugs for senior citizens a major issue.

Davis supports adding prescription drugs as a benefit under Medicare. Bilbray has supported a Republican plan that would rely on private insurers to provide drug coverage for senior citizens.

But there is a school of thought that the 49th is a district where policy differences mean less than a candidate's personal appeal.

"This is one of the last of the touchy-feely congressional districts," where voters are driven less by ideology than their comfort level with elected leaders, said San Diego political consultant Bob Glaser. "Voters want to see and touch their candidates, on the beach, at the Saturday soccer games, at the picnics."

It is a kind of campaigning at which Bilbray excels. It helped him defeat Schenk, although he was outspent nearly 2 to 1.

"I'm a working-class guy from a working-class district," said Bilbray, a former lifeguard who was elected to the City Council in blue-collar Imperial Beach in 1976 and later defeated an incumbent county supervisor.

As part of his precinct-walking, Bilbray made sure to target fashionable Kensington, where Davis--a former social worker active with community organizations--lives with her husband, Steven, a psychiatrist.

Davis is no stranger to in-your-face campaigning. She and some supporters made a show of picking up trash along a stretch of road that Bilbray supporters had adopted as their own but apparently abandoned.

Whether Bilbray is a pragmatist attuned to his district's style or just an opportunist is a matter of debate. One example is his shifting views on President Clinton.

When he defeated Schenk in 1994, he mocked the incumbent as a mere clone of Clinton. But in 1998, Bilbray voted in favor of impeachment only after an internal debate he described as agonizing. And earlier this year, he was one of only three GOP congressmen to stand beside Clinton during a gun-control rally.

Bilbray and Davis were stung by the escalating utility bills that struck San Diego this summer as the region felt the impact of energy deregulation.

Davis had voted for deregulation in the Legislature, and Bilbray had signed a letter supporting it.

As bills skyrocketed this summer, Davis was a co-author of a bill signed by the governor to roll back rates for two years while a new energy system is devised. Bilbray held hearings in San Diego where energy companies were blasted.

For the moment, the candidates have gone quiet on the utility issue. But each has a zinger for the other.

"While he was just talking, I went to bat in Sacramento and stopped the bleeding in San Diego," said Davis.

"For Susan to take credit for fixing the electric debacle is like (ship captain) Joseph Hazelwood and Exxon taking credit for cleaning up hundreds of miles of Alaskan coastline," said Bilbray.

Both lines are likely to reappear before the campaign closes.

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