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Iraq Issue Is an Also-Ran in Race to Replace Cunningham

Neither top 50th District candidate focuses on the war -- nor do the voters with whom they talk.

April 17, 2006|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — You might think the 50th Congressional District, with a military base at one end and a university at the other, would be ripe for a debate about the war in Iraq as voters choose a successor to the imprisoned Randy "Duke" Cunningham.

But you'd be wrong.

Neither of the top contenders in the June runoff has shown much interest in discussing Iraq beyond carefully scripted answers.

Democrat Francine Busby, 55, a Cardiff school board member and women's studies lecturer, is moderately against the Bush policy. Republican Brian Bilbray, 55, a former three-term member of Congress, is moderately in favor.

Neither makes an issue of the war.

Iraq is not mentioned on Bilbray's list of top campaign issues. Busby says she was against the war from the start but does not believe in withdrawing U.S. troops until certain "benchmarks" are met. Just what those benchmarks might be she does not explain.

"Regarding Iraq, this is a divided district," said Steve Erie, a political science professor at UC San Diego. "There is little upside to a strong stance for or against the war."

The candidate in last week's primary who took the strongest stand in favor of the war -- former Assemblyman Howard Kaloogian, a Republican from San Marcos -- was a distant also-ran.

The Republican who came the closest to edging Bilbray for the GOP slot on the runoff ballot, Rancho Santa Fe millionaire businessman Eric Roach, refused to answer a campaign questionnaire asking, given what is known now, if he would have supported the 2003 invasion.

"We're disappointed in all the candidates," said Marge Farrelly, an activist with the North County Coalition for Peace and Justice.

Beyond the activists, there is little push for the candidates to discuss Iraq. Without a military draft, the campuses are quiet.

The day after the primary, an editorial in the San Diego Union-Tribune gave its marching orders to the two candidates, listing the issues it wants discussed. Iraq was not among them. (The newspaper endorsed Bilbray before Tuesday's election.)

A poll of 50th District voters conducted for a neighboring Indian tribe found the top issues to be illegal immigration, ethics in government, healthcare and federal spending.

At forums where candidates answered questions from voters, the issue of Iraq occasionally was mentioned, but with little passion and almost no follow-up questions or back-and-forth between candidates.

Bilbray, whose father served in the Navy, said he fields few questions about Iraq when campaigning door to door: "People are more interested in things closer to their day-to-day lives, about their economic futures."

Busby said that, when she talks to voters who oppose the war, she finds no consensus on how the policy should change, just that "this is not a course we can stay on."

Pollster John Nienstedt, whose firm Competitive Edge Research conducted the poll, says it is not surprising that candidates avoid the issue of Iraq.

"The Republicans are embarrassed about how it's gone," he said. "And Democrats are skittish about seeming unpatriotic, unconcerned about terrorism or unsupportive of the troops."

Cunningham, a Rancho Santa Fe Republican, resigned from Congress in November after pleading guilty to bribery. In a special election to fill the final months of the congressman's eighth term, Busby, one of two Democrats, got 44% of the vote but failed to get the 50% plus one needed for an outright win. Bilbray placed first among 14 Republicans, with 15%.

To say that Busby faces an uphill fight is an understatement.

Gary Jacobson, a congressional scholar at UC San Diego, notes that, in the last 40 years, there have been 174 races in congressional districts in California, such as the 50th, where Republicans had a registration edge.

In only four did the Democrat win. And in none of those did Republicans have a registration margin larger than 4 percentage points. The GOP edge over Democrats in the 50th District is 14 percentage points: 44% Republicans, 30% Democrats and 22% independent.

The district stretches from the northern portion of San Diego to the north-county cities of Oceanside and Escondido. UC San Diego is just outside the southern edge of the district; Camp Pendleton just outside the northern edge.

To win in June, Busby needs to attract moderate Republicans -- voters who might not like hearing a Democrat criticize the commander-in-chief.

"If she starts talking about Iraq, the Republicans will turn her into Jane Fonda," said Allan Hoffenblum, editor of the nonpartisan California Target Book, which analyzes state races.

On the GOP side, Bilbray's campaign feels it "owns" the issue of illegal immigration. Bilbray put himself on the ballot as an "immigration reform consultant" and was a strong supporter of Proposition 187 in 1994, which helped him defeat an incumbent Democrat for Congress. The proposition would have cut off benefits to illegal immigrants but was struck down in court.

"Bilbray has immigration," said Republican consultant John Dadian, who is not involved in the campaign. "He doesn't need to run on Iraq."

Times staff writer Mark Z. Barabak contributed to this report.

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