Garden Grove Baptist minister Wiley Drake summed up the only hope for congressional candidate Jim Gilchrist earlier this week as he delivered grace before a fundraising crowd of 120 people at the Balboa Bay Club in Newport Beach.
"Pray that they might have the courage to vote for the man, not vote for the party," intoned Drake, speaking of voters in the 48th Congressional District, where Gilchrist has been courting Republicans and Democrats in a Dec. 6 special election.
Gilchrist is running a longshot race as the American Independent Party nominee for the coastal Orange County seat formerly held by Christopher Cox of Newport Beach. In July, Cox was approved as chairman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
Gilchrist, co-founder of the Minuteman Project, a volunteer group that patrols the border with Mexico, is reaching out to voters across party lines with his anti-illegal immigration message.
In stressing his activism, he hopes major-party voters will choose him over state Sen. John Campbell (R-Irvine) and Democrat Steve Young. Five candidates are on next month's special-election ballot. They represent each party's top vote-getter in an Oct. 4 primary with 19 candidates.
Campbell got 45.5% of the vote, short of the majority vote he needed to win outright. Gilchrist of the American Independent Party finished third with 14.8%; Democrat Young finished fourth with 8.7%; the Green Party's Bea Tiritilli finished ninth with 0.9% and Libertarian Bruce Cohen finished 10th with 0.8%.
Second place went to former Assemblywoman Marilyn C. Brewer of Newport Beach, a Republican.
The coastal district, which runs from Newport Beach south to Dana Point and includes Irvine and Tustin, is considered one of the most predictably Republican districts in the nation.
On Dec. 6, far more GOP voters will stay with Campbell than switch to Gilchrist, predicted Matt Cunningham, a Republican political consultant from Orange who is unaffiliated with the race.
"John Campbell took a lot of hits in the primary and he ended up with almost 50%," Cunningham said. And, he added, Gilchrist may be hurt by new criticism.
He was referring to Gilchrist's acknowledgment that he voted for Green Party candidate Peter Camejo in the 2003 gubernatorial recall election. Campbell has also highlighted in a brochure some quotes from Gilchrist calling President Bush clueless and advocating taxing "the ultra-rich more."
"Gilchrist hit his high-water mark before his real nuttiness came out, so it's all downhill for him," said Cunningham. "There are no hallmarks of any sort of miraculous comeback."
Republican Party leaders have scrambled to back Campbell in the one way they hope will matter -- the mail. Campaign brochures flooding into district mailboxes have included at least two pieces with absentee ballot applications mailed by the National Republican Congressional Committee. One of them pegs Campbell as "fighting illegal immigration and stopping taxes."
Scott Baugh, chairman of the Orange County Republican Party, said he's not worried.
"He's put the race in the bank with the absentee votes," Baugh said. "The great thing about John Campbell is he takes nothing for granted and he'll work this election to the very end."
Democrat Young, an attorney, said he's campaigning at full speed and having fun, despite getting three hours' sleep a night. His days are spent precinct walking, hanging brochures on doorknobs and meeting with voters. He planned to be up early Thanksgiving Day to plant his campaign signs along the course of the Turkey Trot at Dana Point Harbor.
He figured he'd walked about half of the district. "This is so much fun, I should have done it years ago," he said during a break from campaigning. "We've hit some issues that are really getting traction for us."
One of them, he said, is Gilchrist's bailiwick -- illegal immigration -- with a twist.
Instead of "demonizing Latinos" coming to the country for opportunities, he said, the country should take the thousands of dollars now paid by immigrants to coyotes, or those who take them illegally across the border, and give it to the government to pay for health care, education and other costs.
Immigrants could be fingerprinted, photographed and given a health test at the border, then allowed to enter the country with a work card only after they proved they had a job waiting for them, he said.
"This could raise billions in revenue," Young said. "It would go right into the government, so now these people become a positive benefit to the country and the Border Patrol can concentrate on drug interdiction and protecting the border against terrorists."
Unlike Campbell, Young hasn't received any help from national Democrats, who have dismissed the race as unwinnable, he said.
Gilchrist has sent mail to absentee voters with an appeal from Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) and the slogan: "The wake-up call Congress needs now!" Tancredo said Gilchrist is a good Republican who just happens to be affiliated with another party.