RIPON, Calif. — When reports came out that U.S. Rep. Richard W. Pombo had rented a luxury camper at government expense and taken his family on a "working vacation" to several national parks, the common reaction in this San Joaquin Valley town was: So what?
"Most people thought, 'Well, at least he didn't take a Lear jet,' " said Ripon City Atty. Tom Terpstra, one of Pombo's many avid supporters in this almond- and walnut-growing center just north of Modesto.
"The RV trip? That's a lot of smoke but no fire," said walnut grower and developer Gary Barton, an officer with Citizens Land Alliance, a property rights organization that Pombo co-founded before he was first elected to Congress 14 years ago.
Pombo (R-Tracy), 45, and John T. Doolittle (R-Roseville), 55, have come under attack for their ethics as a corruption scandal threatens the GOP lock on Washington.
Ethics watchdogs have questioned their ties to Jack Abramoff, the Washington lobbyist who pleaded guilty to defrauding Indian tribes of more than $20 million. The watchdogs have also criticized the candidates for using public money for personal expenses and for making large payments to their wives and family from campaign funds.
Pombo also faces opposition from well-financed environmental groups.
But moderate Republicans hoping to oust them in the June 6 primary and Democrats looking to defeat them in November could find it tough going in the two conservative districts. Despite the ethical questions, interviews with voters here show that many still favor the GOP incumbents.
Nevertheless, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which coordinates the party's spending on House races, is waiting to pounce if either appears weak in their primaries.
Republicans, with control of Congress at stake, are taking no chances. Vice President Dick Cheney is flying in Monday to appear with Doolittle at a fundraiser in Sacramento and with Pombo at a rally in Stockton. And both candidates are shoring up their campaign funds. As of March 31, Pombo had collected more than $1 million; Doolittle, $406,596.
"That's two times what we usually do," said Doolittle aide Richard Robinson. "We believe the Democrats are going to come at us with everything they've got."
Pombo, whose spectacularly gerrymandered 11th District is a mix of ranchland and Bay Area exurbs, is seeking his eighth term; Doolittle, who represents the 4th District, stretching from the upwardly mobile Sierra foothills east of Sacramento to the Oregon border, is seeking his ninth term.
The races are seen as the only seriously competitive ones with incumbents in the state. In the others, including those in Southern California, most incumbents are expected to win reelection handily.
As chairman of the House Resources Committee that regulates Indian tribes, Pombo took $7,500 in campaign contributions from Abramoff and $30,000 from his clients and associates.
Saying that he wanted to avoid the appearance of impropriety, Pombo donated the $7,500 from Abramoff to a Minnesota Indian reservation Boys and Girls Club.
Doolittle, who describes Abramoff as a "friend," accepted $14,000 from the convicted lobbyist and more than $50,000 from Abramoff associates.
Doolittle's wife, Julie, a fundraising consultant who takes a 15% commission on her husband's campaign contributions, once worked for Abramoff. The FBI has asked for records of her business dealings with the lobbyist, who is assisting the bureau in its investigation of influence peddling in Congress.
The congressman also used Abramoff's sports box at Washington's MCI Center, home of the NBA Wizards, but failed to report it on his campaign disclosure statement. Doolittle said he occasionally dined at Abramoff's luxury restaurant, Signatures, but paid for the meals.
Doolittle, whose district has the highest Republican registration in the state, defiantly refused to return the money from Abramoff and his friends.
"I felt the contributions were ethically and properly given," he said in a Sacramento radio interview. "I'm not going to be like the rest of the politicos and, like a flock of birds, take flight."
The latest revelation about Doolittle is that for the last five years, he and his wife have dipped into campaign accounts to pay $5,881 in child care for their daughter, now 14.
"Mr. Doolittle makes $165,200 a year as a member of Congress. His wife has already taken in close to $100,000 in commissions this election as a fundraiser," the Washington Post fumed in a recent editorial. "They should at least pay the sitter, as other working parents do."
But what ignites indignation and outrage in Washington doesn't always resonate in the district, where voters tend to view such behavior as endemic to the political class as a whole.
"If I thought Doolittle was an anomaly, yeah, I'd be upset," said Ray Thompson III, 52, who manages a family-owned apartment complex in Auburn. "I don't particularly like what I'm hearing, but if it wasn't him, it would be someone else."