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So Near to Congress, So Far From Voters

House: Incumbents are trapped in Washington by the legislative impasse, while challengers take advantage of greater visibility on the trail.


WASHINGTON — With the Nov. 7 election looming, endangered Rep. Steven T. Kuykendall (R-Rancho Palos Verdes) was running hard Friday--even if he was thousands of miles from his South Bay district.

He hustled back and forth between the floor of the House--where he cast a vote to keep the government running for another 24 hours--and GOP congressional campaign headquarters--where he tried to campaign from a small cubicle with a telephone.

Kuykendall was among a few dozen House members, including a handful from California, who are facing competitive reelection races but have been stuck on Capitol Hill because of a budget impasse with the White House that threatens to extend at least into next week.

In the modern era, personal contact with voters is no longer essential to victory. But in a tight race, it cannot hurt, as the lawmakers still in Washington well know.

"Republican or Democrat, they all want to be home," said political consultant Hal Dash, president of Cerrell Associates, a Los Angeles-based political consulting company. "Congressional campaigns, even in California, are still in part ground campaigns. . . . All the cable TV, all the mail and all the surrogates in the world are no substitute for in-your-face, door-to-door campaigning."

Rep. James E. Rogan (R-Glendale), who is locked in one of the most closely watched congressional battles in the nation, had his suitcase at his side Friday in his House office. "I'm booked on the 3, 4:30 and 6 o'clock planes tonight," he said early in the day, before it became apparent that he would make none of them.

He has reservations for flights today, but he also has a contingency plan. If necessary, he will address a campaign event tonight in San Marino via satellite from Washington.

"I don't like being here," Rogan said. "But I have a job to do."

State Sen. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), Rogan's main challenger in a race expected to set a spending record for a House contest, has no sympathy for Rogan's plight.

"I think there is probably nothing that pleases him more than to be able to hide behind his multimillion-dollar, misleading advertising campaign" instead of facing voters directly, Schiff said.

Schiff, for his part, was scheduled to begin today at an 8 a.m. interdenominational ministers' session in Pasadena, then move on to another meeting in Pasadena and a speech to the San Gabriel Valley Black Business Assn. He also hopes to make appearances at an Armenian TV station, a Glendale street fair and, time permitting, an Eagle Scout ceremony in La Crescenta.

Rep. Calvin Dooley (D-Visalia), also facing a tough race, was somewhat accepting of his plight Friday. "The messages are out there: the TV, the radio, the mail."

Still, he was trying to figure out whether he could make a televised debate Sunday in Bakersfield with his opponent, Republican Rich Rodriguez.

Kuykendall's staff was hoping to get him to California sometime today so that the former Marine could receive an award at the Marine Scholarship Ball tonight at the Century Plaza Hotel.

Kuykendall likes to walk precincts and attend community events in the South Bay's 36th District. To make up for time lost during the congressional workweek, he crammed 10 appearances into last weekend. He also stayed home last Monday for a fund-raiser featuring Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in Torrance, then caught a plane to Washington for Tuesday's session.

His Democratic challenger, Jane Harman of Rolling Hills, who held the seat for three terms before giving it up to run for governor in 1998, found irony in Kuykendall's absences. His TV commercials and political mailers have questioned her local ties and dedication to the district.

"I'm the ghost," said Harman, referring to Kuykendall's inferences that she is not around much. "Well, the ghost is working the district."

Harman also argued that the partisan gridlock that is keeping Kuykendall in Washington shows why voters should replace him and help oust Republicans from control of the House.

Several incumbents, not surprisingly, said they don't think the budget impasse is having any political effect on voters one way or another.

"People don't care that we're having difficulty completing this session," Dooley said.


Simon reported from Washington and Merl from Los Angeles.

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