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18 Candidates Vie for Cunningham Seat in Congress

A Democrat is expected to get the most votes -- but not enough to send her to Washington -- and then be defeated in a runoff by a GOP foe.

April 09, 2006|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — First his mansion in Rancho Santa Fe was sold. Then his armoires, fancy rugs and other ill-gotten antiques were auctioned.

On Tuesday, with Randall "Duke" Cunningham doing an eight-year stretch in federal prison for bribery and tax evasion, voters will take the first step toward finding a new occupant for his seat in Congress.

The open seat in the 50th Congressional District has drawn 14 Republicans, two Democrats, a Libertarian and an independent in a scramble to take over this GOP stronghold, which includes the northern part of San Diego and the cities of Del Mar, Solana Beach, Encinitas, Carlsbad, San Marcos, Vista and Escondido.

The conventional thinking is that the best-known Democrat, Cardiff School District board member Francine Busby, will place first on Tuesday but fall far short of the 50% plus one she needs for an outright win to complete the final eight months of what was Cunningham's eighth term.

Busby, according to this thinking, will then be handily thumped in a June runoff by whichever Republican comes in second. The district's registration is 44% Republican and 30% Democratic, with 22% listed as independent.

Busby, 55, ran against Cunningham in 2004, winning 36% of the vote. She announced her intent to run again even before Cunningham was ensnared in a scandal involving bribes from defense contractors.

A poll by Datamar Inc., a local firm with a good track record and no connection to any candidate, put Busby's support in the high 30% range. The same poll suggests that the top Republicans are Eric Roach, 43, a former stock brokerage executive; former Assemblyman Howard Kaloogian, 46; and former Rep. Brian Bilbray, 55.

Busby's foes say her showing in the poll suggests that she has not been able to capitalize on the Cunningham scandal to improve her standing since her 2004 run.

Still, the national Republican Party is sufficiently concerned about her to launch a barrage of television advertisements noting that she took a $500 contribution from former Sen. Dennis DeConcini, an Arizona Democrat whose political career was destroyed by the savings and loan scandal in the 1980s, and $2,000 from an Illinois congresswoman whose husband was just convicted of check-kiting.

"She wants you to believe she's ethically pure, but the truth is something else," said Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee. "It's time voters knew the truth."

Busby takes the GOP blast as a sign that her message is getting traction, that she'll be part of a new wave to clean up corruption in Republican-run Washington.

"They're feeling very threatened by this. They're desperate that they may lose this seat," she said Thursday, as she prepared to cast an early ballot.

The GOP attack has allowed her to counterpunch with a television ad saying the disgraced Cunningham donated money to his party for such ads before he was sent to prison, suggesting that he is trying to influence the election even from his cell.

In the latter days of the campaign, Busby has moved to the middle and downplayed her party affiliation.

On her TV ads, she doesn't mention she is a Democrat and she praises the approach of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on immigration reform, opting not to mention Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), his co-sponsor on proposed legislation.

On the Republican side, the major candidates are simultaneously abhorring Cunningham's ethics and embracing his politics: strong on national defense, adamantly opposed to illegal immigration and big on tax cuts.

Roach, of Rancho Santa Fe, has been the surprise of the political season. A newcomer to politics, he has used his own money to blanket TV with commercials and has the support of former Rep. Ron Packard, a Carlsbad Republican and one of the region's more popular political figures.

Bilbray has boasted that he would arrive in Washington with six years' seniority from his three terms representing a district south of the 50th before he lost in 2000. Opponents say he's an outsider who moved into the district only to run for office.

Kaloogian has a core of die-hard supporters and is a favorite of radio talk-show hosts. He has tried to score points by criticizing Cindy Sheehan, who became a critic of the war in Iraq after her soldier son was killed.

But the Kaloogian campaign was also caught in a highly publicized gaffe.

His website showed what was purported to be a photo of peaceful downtown Baghdad to prove that the media are not telling the truth about the war in Iraq. Liberal bloggers noted that the photo is of a street in Turkey.

Trailing the front-runners are former Del Mar Mayor Richard Earnest, 63, a former Navy pilot, like Cunningham; scuba-gear tycoon Alan Uke, 53, who led the drive to bring the carrier Midway to San Diego as a museum; state Sen. Bill Morrow (R-Oceanside), 51; and real estate investor William Hauf, 61.

Although the talk of the campaign is issues and philosophies, results could turn on the nuts and bolts of getting the vote out: persuading supporters to fill out absentee ballots, designing the most compelling brochures, appearing before the right community groups and marshaling door-to-door campaigners.

As an incumbent-less contest with an anticipated turnout in the 30% range, it's a kind of laboratory for campaign techniques, some consultants agree.

"This is Political Consulting 101," said Republican consultant John Dadian, who has no candidate in the race. "It's going to be studied for years."

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