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Minuteman a Wild Card in O.C. Race

Gilchrist's strong finish Tuesday makes him chief rival to the GOP's Campbell. In a special election, anything's possible, one expert says.

October 06, 2005|Jean O. Pasco | Times Staff Writer

When state Sen. John Campbell makes his final push in December to win a prized congressional district in coastal Orange County, the biggest fight may come not from his Democratic opponent but from a retired accountant who gained notoriety by watching for illegal immigrants at the Mexican border.

Voter discontent over illegal immigration propelled Minuteman Project founder Jim Gilchrist, a first-time candidate and member of the American Independent Party, into a strong third-place finish in Tuesday's special election to succeed Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) in the 48th District.

The biggest surprise wasn't Campbell, who won 46% of Tuesday's vote -- short of an outright victory, but enough to secure the Republican nomination for a Dec. 6 showdown among top party vote-getters.

More striking was that Gilchrist -- a political unknown a year ago -- grabbed more votes than the top Democrat, Steve Young. He also came within shouting distance of the second-place finisher, former Assemblywoman Marilyn C. Brewer of Newport Beach, a Republican who represented much of the district for six years.

Gilchrist made a splash this year when he created a group of volunteers to take shifts watching for illegal crossings into the United States from Mexico, staging their first protest in Arizona. His Minuteman Project -- instant fodder for television and radio talk shows -- was praised by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger but derided as vigilantes by President Bush.

"This is the first time I've seen a third-party candidate with such a strong showing," marveled political consultant Scott Hart of Newport Beach, who wasn't affiliated with any of the 17 candidates on the ballot.

"Illegal immigration was Gilchrist's issue and his platform, and that's why people were voting for him," Hart said. "It shows how strong the issue is."

Momentum is on Gilchrist's side for the Dec. 6 election, his campaign manager, Howie Morgan, said Wednesday amid a buzz of renewed activity after Tuesday's results.

"It's going to be a two-man race between Jim and John, and we haven't even begun to fight on illegal immigration," said Morgan, a Lake Forest resident.

Democrat Young, Libertarian Bruce Cohen and Bea Tiritilli of the Green Party will also be on the ballot.

In a regular election, Gilchrist's optimism could be misplaced. But in low-turnout special elections -- only 20% of registered voters cast ballots Tuesday -- anything's possible, particularly with a galvanizing issue, said Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican political analyst in Los Angeles.

"Illegal immigration is a festering political problem that neither party is addressing, and Gilchrist has credibility on the issue," Hoffenblum said. "But I think Gilchrist probably peaked on Tuesday."

Illegal immigration was not a core issue for Cox, who represented the district for 17 years before he resigned Aug. 2 to become chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Gilchrist will force Campbell -- a millionaire former car dealer -- to continue talking about illegal immigration, said Mark Petracca, a political science professor at UC Irvine and a Democrat.

"It's not popular with his country club friends, and that's because illegal immigrants are out there cutting the country club lawn," Petracca said.

Gilchrist's campaign got early attention for his Minuteman connection. But it didn't take off until two weeks ago, when radio and television advertisements began to run across the district, which stretches from Newport Beach to San Juan Capistrano. On Monday, Gilchrist debated Campbell for an hour on "The John and Ken Show" on KFI-AM (640).

In early returns based on a hefty chunk of absentee ballots, Gilchrist was well behind Young, an attorney from Newport Beach who had advertised on the cable TV system that serves Leisure World Laguna Woods. But as votes from polling places rolled in, Gilchrist's numbers surged.

While Campbell and Young picked up half again as many votes over their absentee-ballot showing, Gilchrist's count swelled by 250%, picking up an additional 8,200 votes -- far more than Brewer, who had focused most of her effort on turning out election-day voters.

Campbell ended up with 25,000 more votes than Gilchrist and 23,000 more than Brewer, out of 80,000 cast.

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