Tuesday's special election to fill Rep. Christopher Cox's seat might have been a bland affair with the Republican primary winner preordained -- year after year, congressional elections in coastal Orange County usually are.
This year, the politics of immigration have changed that.
Jim Gilchrist, cofounder of the border security group called the Minuteman Project and candidate of the American Independent Party, has run an energetic and increasingly wellfunded campaign against state Sen. John Campbell (R-Irvine). He has forced the lawmaker to renounce votes allowing illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at state universities and to use Mexican identification cards for official purposes. And he has turned the race into a virtual referendum on immigration policy.
Even if Campbell wins the 48th Congressional District seat Tuesday -- and most political insiders think he will -- the race underscores the wedge that immigration has driven into conservative ranks across the country.
"Ross Perot did not become president" in 1992, said John J. Pitney Jr., a government professor at Claremont McKenna College and former Republican Party strategist, "but he put the [federal budget] deficit at the top of the national agenda." In much the same way, advocates of tougher controls on illegal immigration hope Gilchrist's challenge to Campbell will propel their cause.
Gilchrist supporters are hoping a strong showing will inspire congressional candidates in half a dozen border states who are weighing the campaign potency of illegal immigration.
Gilchrist's campaign has been helped by some Republican Party activists and fueled by a backlash against President Bush's guest-worker proposal. Many opponents, including Gilchrist, characterize the plan as a backdoor amnesty for illegal immigrants.
Confounding the experts, the retired accountant from Aliso Viejo has attracted national media attention and almost $500,000 in contributions -- about half the amount Campbell has raised.
"The issue of illegal immigration is below the surface just about everywhere in California," Pitney said. "It snakes through the political landscape like the San Andreas fault, and you never know when you are going to get a little tremor or a calamitous quake."
Gilchrist's persistent anti-illegal immigrant theme forced Campbell in September to apologize for his votes in the Legislature on tuition and ID cards.
A month later Gilchrist upstaged Campbell while both were guests on a drive-time KFI-AM radio broadcast of "The John and Ken Show." The issue: illegal immigration, which Gilchrist blames for a host of social ills from traffic congestion to overcrowded emergency rooms.
During the last month, Gilchrist, 56, became an instant spokesman against Bush's guest-worker plan on Fox News and won an endorsement from immigration activist Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.).
Since the KFI broadcast, Gilchrist has become the bane of the local GOP, openly criticizing Campbell for being soft on the issue. One group from Texas that supports Gilchrist sent mailers to voters sporting a photo of Osama bin Laden, contending that Campbell's position on border security would encourage terrorist infiltration into the country.
Gilchrist emerged on the national scene in April when the Minuteman Project deployed volunteer patrols along a 23-mile stretch of Arizona's southwest border with Mexico. To the dismay of U.S. and Mexican officials, they arrived with private planes and night-vision goggles.
The group's message -- that accommodating undocumented residents is costly and a porous border poses security risks -- soon tapped into rising concerns around the nation. The issue has particular resonance in border states, where most of the country's estimated 10 million illegal immigrants live.
Orange County is the perfect petri dish for Gilchrist's campaign. The conservative county was home to Proposition 187, a statewide ballot measure in 1994 that banned public services for illegal immigrants until it was overturned in court.
Still, many political experts believe money from activist donors across the country won't be a deciding factor in Gilchrist's bid to succeed Cox, who became chairman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in July.
"Illegal immigration is just not that big a motivator" for district voters, said Harvey Englander, consultant for former Assemblywoman Marilyn C. Brewer (R-Newport Beach). Brewer came in second behind Campbell in the Oct. 4 primary.
"People who care about this issue, and it's No. 1 in their lives, they may vote for Gilchrist, but most people have more than one issue they care about," Englander said.
Besides Gilchrist and Campbell, 50, three other candidates are vying for Cox's seat -- Democrat Steve Young, 51, a Newport Beach attorney; Libertarian Bruce Cohen, 44, a real estate broker from Irvine; and Santa Ana high school teacher Bea Tiritilli, 42, the Green Party nominee.