BERKELEY — The congressional fundraiser was at a pub in the heart of this liberal political stronghold. A local band, The Flux, entertained with a tune titled "Impeach the President."
The focus of attention: two candidates vying for seats in bedrock conservative districts to the east, currently occupied by Republicans John T. Doolittle of Granite Bay and Richard W. Pombo of Tracy.
Although most experts still give them a narrow edge, Doolittle, 55, seeking his ninth term, and Pombo, 45, pursuing his eighth, are in the toughest fights of their political careers going into the Nov. 7 election.
Their Northern California races are considered the most competitive in the state. President Bush demonstrated his concern by showing up at fundraisers for the duo last week, garnering more than $1 million for their campaigns.
But the prospect of upset victories contributing to a Democratic takeover of Congress -- potentially installing San Francisco's Nancy Pelosi as speaker -- has added another dimension to the Doolittle and Pombo races. Hundreds of volunteers and activists in Berkeley and other Bay Area communities have mobilized on the Democratic side, raising money, manning phone banks and carpooling into the districts to canvass neighborhoods for votes.
"They are already trying to figure out the color of Nancy Pelosi's rug in the speaker's office," said Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the nonpartisan California Target Book, an election compendium.
The Berkeley event at the Albatross Pub was preceded Sept. 27 by a rally at Oakland's Grand Lake Theater at which former San Francisco mayor and state Assembly Speaker Willie Brown urged the crowd to fan out into the Doolittle and Pombo districts.
"There is a concerted effort to nationalize the elections," complained Doolittle, interviewed after the Bush fundraiser at the Serrano Country Club in suburban Sacramento. "You've got a lot of them being bused in here from the Bay Area -- left-wing, antiwar activists."
Doolittle, whose 4th District stretches from the Sierra foothills east of Sacramento to the Oregon border, is opposed by retired Air Force Lt. Col. Charlie Brown, 56, of Roseville. Brown, a soft-spoken Air Force Academy graduate, is counting on his military background to help him in what is arguably California's most conservative district, based on Republican registration.
Pombo, whose 11th District includes Bay Area suburbs and San Joaquin Valley ranch lands, is challenged by wind energy scientist Jerry McNerney, 55, of Pleasanton. McNerney's intellectual and environmental credentials are an asset in some of the high-tech corners of the district, which includes the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
Pombo and McNerney faced off last week in a debate in Tracy, Pombo's hometown.
The incumbent defended the Bush policy in Iraq.
"Going to war in Iraq was to protect this country," Pombo said. "I would rather take the war over there than fight it here."
McNerney countered that "we need to find a smart and a tough way to end this war."
The McNerney-Pombo contest is a repeat of the 2004 election, which Pombo won handily. Since 2004, however, both Doolittle and Pombo have suffered from their association with convicted Washington lobbyist and power broker Jack Abramoff.
Doolittle's wife, Julie, owns a political consulting firm that did extensive work for Abramoff. Doolittle has also been criticized for paying his wife's firm, Sierra Dominion Financial Solutions, a 15% commission on campaign contributions.
When President Bush raised $600,000 at the Oct. 3 fundraiser, Julie Doolittle earned $90,000.
Pombo received $7,500 in campaign contributions from Abramoff and $30,000 from Abramoff clients.
Like Doolittle, Pombo has also come under attack for bestowing campaign funds on his immediate family, including several hundred thousand dollars for his wife, Annette, and brother Randall.
On the heels of the Abramoff matter came the congressional page scandal that led to the resignation of Rep. Mark Foley, a Florida Republican. With the environment for Republicans deteriorating, the independent Cook Political Report last week downgraded both the Pombo and Doolittle races from likely GOP victories to merely leaning Republican.
Still, both Doolittle and Pombo have amassed significant campaign reserves. In the last federal reporting period, Pombo had 10 times more cash on hand than McNerney, a disparity that could give the incumbent a big advantage when television ads begin airing in earnest this month.
Both the Brown and McNerney candidacies, however, have been bolstered by activists from the Bay Area, the most Democratic chunk of the state.
"I'm overjoyed to find a place where I can work and perhaps make a difference," said Keith Miller, 69, a retired UC Berkeley mathematics professor who spent a recent evening manning a phone bank for McNerney in a downtown Oakland union hall.