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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS

Duncan D. Hunter wants to keep House seat in the family

The son of the staunch conservative, in Congress for 28 years, seeks to replace him.

June 02, 2008|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

ALPINE — Here in the Republican stronghold of eastern San Diego County, Duncan Hunter the son is attempting to succeed Duncan Hunter the father in the 52nd Congressional District.

The elder Hunter is leaving Congress after 14 terms and a failed try this year for the GOP nomination for president.

When he first ran for Congress in 1980, he was a 31-year-old combat veteran from Vietnam. His son is a 31-year-old combat veteran from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Father and son share the same brand of conservatism: Continue building the border fence; continue fighting in Iraq; cut spending and taxes; oppose abortion and gay marriage; and support the rights of gun owners and sportsmen. (The Hunters are hunters.)

"If you're asking if I've fallen far from the Hunter tree, the answer is no," the younger Duncan Hunter said at a fundraiser hosted by his parents last week at their hilltop home here, 40 miles east of downtown San Diego.

Hunter's three opponents generally share his political views and have credentials that, in a Hunter-free election, might make them front-runners in this ruby-red district.

Brian Jones, 39, is a Santee councilman and unordained Christian minister. Rick Powell, 61, is a former Marine and retired Army colonel who served in Vietnam and Iraq and worked for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Bob Watkins, 65, is a county school board member and owner of an international management consulting business.

An independent poll done for the Sycuan band of Indians, which donated $2,300 to Watkins, suggests that Hunter will win easily.

Whoever wins the Republican nomination becomes a favorite to beat the Democratic nominee in November. Republicans hold a 14-point registration advantage in a district that includes the eastern edge of San Diego and several suburbs. President Bush got 61% of the vote in 2004.

"Duncan Hunter is the brand name, the Coca-Cola. The others are off-brands," said Carl Luna, political science professor at San Diego Mesa College.

Hunter's family is helping. His brother Sam quit his job at a golf course to work on the campaign. And although the candidate was deployed to Afghanistan last year, much of the campaign organizing and fundraising was done by his wife, Margaret.

Hunter, who graduated from San Diego State University, quit a high-tech job to join the Marines shortly after Sept. 11.

An artillery officer, he was deployed to Iraq in 2003 after the fall of Baghdad and then again in 2004 for the battle in Fallouja. He is now a captain, no longer on active duty but eligible to be recalled for a fourth deployment.

When he was in Iraq, Hunter saw no need to tell his fellow junior officers that his father was a congressman -- the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee until the Democratic takeover in 2006.

But on the campaign trail, he is his father's son and proud of it. He stumped for his father in South Carolina. For his own campaign, he inserts a middle initial D (for Duane) on his campaign material.

The criticism of Duncan D. Hunter is much the same as it was of his father in 1980: lack of experience outside military service.

Powell said that his opponent Hunter leans heavily on his Iraq and Afghanistan service while campaigning. As a colonel, Powell said, he commanded far more troops than Hunter would as a captain.

"He's a patriot, there's no doubt," Powell said. "Duncan D. talks about his combat experience in nearly every subject; that's the limit of his experience."

Another opponent, Jones, said he figures that 52nd District voters want a change. He's slammed Hunter for taking campaign contributions from defense firms that benefited from his father's "earmark" appropriations.

"Nothing against the congressman or his son, but people want a fresh face and some fresh ideas," Jones said.

The Alpine fundraiser was attended by about 150 people, some of whom have supported the candidate's father since his first campaign.

Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-Carlsbad) remembered when he first met the elder Hunter in 1979. Bilbray was the surfer-mayor of Imperial Beach when in walked "some crazy young lawyer from National City asking for my vote."

Duncan D. promised the gathering he would continue the "Hunter legacy," particularly in championing increased border security. America has to be a good place when "good people, like my father, run for Congress."

A gentle joke ran through the crowd that someday Duncan Hunter will be remembered not for his own accomplishments but rather as the father of Duncan D. Hunter. That thought didn't seem to bother the congressman.

"My son is a great American," he said.

--

tony.perry@latimes.com

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