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Furious Finish Underway in Tight San Diego Contest

Republicans and Democrats unleash party stars, commercials and mailers as Bilbray and Davis battle head-and-head to the wire.


SAN DIEGO — Outspent, redefined and kept off balance by an aggressive Democratic challenger, Rep. Brian Bilbray is banking on a furious finish to help him squeak to victory in a district where Democrats hold a slight registration edge.

A poll for a local television station suggests that Bilbray is trailing Assemblywoman Susan Davis (D-San Diego).

But the poll was taken just as Republicans and business interests aligned with the GOP began an all-out rescue effort to save the three-term incumbent who won by only three percentage points in 1998.

Among other tactics, the Bilbray campaign has a TV commercial using footage from a 1930s horror movie to mock Davis for her early support of energy deregulation, which brought skyrocketing utility bills to San Diego.

By one estimate, more than $10 million will be spent in the race by the two candidates and special interest groups, more than triple the spending of just two years ago.

More is at play than just the GOP's desire to save an incumbent who favors Beach Boy fashions and bucks members of his own party by supporting gun control, abortion rights and campaign finance reform.

The mantra of both parties is that the fight to control Congress--and to name the next speaker--is being fought in the mailboxes, TV sets and newspapers of the 49th District, which covers northern San Diego and the coastal cities of Coronado and Imperial Beach.

Both sides have brought in headliners.

Gloria Steinem stumped for Davis, and Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala is due at a pro-Davis rally in San Diego today.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a popular figure in this Navy town, did a fund-raiser for Bilbray and a TV commercial praising his support for campaign spending reform.

Like Al Gore, Susan Davis has seemed to keep a distance from President Clinton. In June, when Clinton came to San Diego to raise money for Davis, she stayed in Sacramento.

On Friday, the White House announced that Clinton was coming to San Diego this week to campaign for Davis as part of a California trip for Democratic congressional candidates. But the Davis camp quickly told reporters there is no plan for Clinton to come to San Diego.

"We'd be honored to have him, but we don't feel we need him," said Davis spokeswoman Lisa Sherman.

Bilbray says he wishes Clinton would come to San Diego because his presence for Davis could push moderates and political independents into the Bilbray camp.

In a district where Democrats hold only a 39% to 37% edge in registration over Republicans, and 17% of voters are independents, both candidates are reluctant to stress party affiliation.

"Bilbray is running away from his party, and Davis is certainly not running toward hers," said Gary Jacobson, professor of political science at UC San Diego.

Expecting a victory for the Gore-Lieberman ticket in California, national Democrats hope the state will provide four of the seven seats needed for their party to regain control of Congress, where they have been a minority since 1994, when Bilbray and others were swept into office by a campaign organized by former Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Democrats have high hopes in the 36th District, where Jane Harman is trying to reclaim her seat from Rep. Steven T. Kuykendall (R-Rancho Palos Verdes); the 27th, where state Sen. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) opposes presidential impeachment leader Rep. James E. Rogan (R-Glendale); and the 15th in Silicon Valley, where Republican incumbent Tom Campbell chose to run for U.S. Senate.

"We've got the Republicans on the ropes," said Democratic strategist Bob Mulholland.

Bilbray, 49, has his own boxing analogy--one that has him, Muhammad Ali-like, pounding his opponent in the final rounds and winning on points.

"You just take the hits early on, you rope-a-dope, rope-a-dope, and finally people say: How long can those East Coast labor unions attack this guy?" Bilbray said. "Then you come out strong in the last weeks and get the job done."

Amy Walter, House editor of the Cook Political Report, a Washington newsletter that analyzes campaigns, said she expects the Democrats to pick up seats in California but thinks the Mulholland-like glee is more spin than substance.

Walter said that Bilbray and the other endangered Republicans will be helped because George W. Bush is narrowing Al Gore's lead in California and showing no signs of abandoning the state.

Bilbray is hoping the utility rate issue will give his campaign what it has so far lacked: an issue on which his opponent is vulnerable and defensive.

As he climbed the political ladder from Imperial Beach City Council to the county Board of Supervisors to Congress, Bilbray mastered the art of making his opponent deal with the issues of his choosing.

In 1994, when he ousted a one-term Democrat, the top issues were taxes and illegal immigration, Bilbray strong suits.

But this year the top issues in the 49th appear to be health care and prescription drugs for seniors, and some political consultants say that whenever Medicare becomes a hot issue, it provides an advantage for Democrats.

Still, Walter suggests that this may be remembered as the political season when Democrats went to the Medicare theme too early and too often.

"It's not an issue that Republicans can't neutralize by offering their own plan or by just confusing the issue with details, and thus make it much less of an advantage for Democrats," Walter said.

Bilbray forces have their own prescription-drug commercials, including one that accuses Davis, 56, of trying to "scare seniors." For weeks, Davis' TV ads have pounded Bilbray on the issue.

"I want to show you I'm not as bad and mean as the television commercials say I am," Bilbray told a crowd last week before a debate with Davis.

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