One is the daughter of a storied Los Angeles political family. Another is California's elections chief. The other built a following during her two previous challenges to the politician she wants to replace.
Although there are 16 candidates on the May 17 special election ballot to succeed former Rep. Jane Harman of Venice, much of the attention during the short, intense campaign has focused on three Democrats: Los Angeles Councilwoman Janice Hahn, Secretary of State Debra Bowen and antiwar activist and teacher Marcy Winograd.
They share attributes that set them apart. They are running in a district drawn to elect Democrats, who have a 45% to 27.5% edge over Republicans. They have raised substantial amounts of money. They also have campaign experience and organizations to help them turn out supporters in the South Bay-based district.
"If you don't have the money, name recognition and a get-out-the-vote operation, you can't do it," said USC political scientist Sherry Bebitch Jeffe. "These three women already are known by some of the voters because they have run in or represented at least parts of the district before."
Many observers, including Jeffe, see the crowded race mainly as a two-way battle between Bowen and Hahn, who have the most money and have the broadest political experience. They are widely viewed as the most likely competitors in a July 12 runoff, which will be required if no one wins a majority May 17.
In challenging Harman, Winograd developed a passionate following with her calls to cut defense spending, end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and reassess U.S. policies toward Israel, but she still lost. That is not likely to change now, observers say.
"Winograd may have the most motivated constituency," Jeffe said. "The question is, are there enough of them?"
All three are more liberal than the moderate Harman, who once joked that she was "the best Republican in the Democratic Party." But there are notable differences among them.
Hahn, 59, is the daughter of former Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, one of the area's most-beloved politicians. Her uncle, Gordon Hahn, was a Los Angeles city councilman, and her brother, James K. Hahn, was mayor of Los Angeles.
Janice Hahn was a teacher, then a public relations executive with Southern California Edison Co. before running for office. She narrowly lost a 1998 contest for the same 36th Congressional District seat before boundaries were drawn to favor Democrats.
She handily won her 2001 race for the San Pedro-based council position and has been reelected twice. Hahn lost the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor last year. When Harman announced in early February that she would resign to lead a Washington think tank, Hahn had a campaign staff in place within hours. She quickly lined up endorsements from labor, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and many other elected and business officials.
On the council, Hahn has pushed for more environmental controls in the Harbor area, modernization of Los Angeles International Airport and higher wages and better working conditions for hotel workers near the airport. She has forged strong alliances with labor unions, many of whom are backing her in the congressional race.
About half of her contributions have come from City Hall lobbyists and developers, but she also has received small donations from individuals. In early reports, she led all candidates in fundraising, with $275,000 to Bowen's $195,000 and Winograd's $50,000. The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and an insurance group have waged independent campaigns to support her.
Hahn has pushed for development of green jobs. She calls for ending taxpayer subsidies to oil companies and spending more on public transportation and road repairs.
Bowen, 55, of Marina del Rey, won election last year to a second term as secretary of state. Earlier, she spent 14 years in the Legislature in seats that overlap much of the congressional district. She concentrated on privacy and government transparency matters and in 1993 wrote a measure that made California among the first states to put information about pending legislation and lawmakers' voting records online.
She practiced corporate, tax and employment law in private firms in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles and expanded her practice to environmental and land-use issues after volunteering with the local group Heal the Bay. As secretary of state, Bowen ordered a review of electronic voting systems and restricted their use.
Her work, criticized by some county officials and voting-system companies, won her the John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Award in 2008. Some of her other initiatives, including updating the office's technology and improving business licensing, have fallen short.