In a June race for Congress, shades of fall

Tuesday's election in a California district is an early test of voters' views.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

By the numbers, Democratic congressional candidate Francine Busby shouldn't expect to get a federal paycheck anytime soon.

She's running, for the second time, in a conservative district where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by more than 4:3. In the 2004 general election, she snagged just 36 percent of the vote. And her opponent's political experience outpaces hers by about two decades.

Then again, the Republican who walloped Ms. Busby in 2004 - disgraced congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham - is now behind bars, sparking a special election on Tuesday. Meanwhile, the handling of both the war in Iraq and hurricane Katrina have scuttled President Bush's approval ratings and dampened Republican prospects. The result: Busby has a shot at winning a race widely seen as a bellwether for the fall elections.

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"If a Democrat were to win it, it would be a clear sign of discontent with Republicans in general," says Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego. "It's a district Republicans should never lose."

Polls show a tight race, and Busby's mild, suburban-mom persona appears to be winning voters. Still, the hill she must climb to election is a big one. Democrats have won only four of 195 races in Republican-dominated congressional districts in the Golden State since 1966, says Dr. Jacobson. Each time, the GOP had only a slight registration advantage.

There's another obstacle for Busby: a colorful, high-profile opponent. Brian Bilbray, a moderate Republican who beat back more conservative opponents in the primary, first made news 30 years ago by becoming a councilman in a San Diego-area beach town at the age of 24. The surfer-turned-environmentalist became mayor at 27, then a county superviser and finally a congressman before recently venturing into lobbying.

Even by the standards of congressional politics, the race has been nasty. One ad supporting Mr. Bilbray accused Busby, a school board member in Cardiff, Calif., of "praising" a teacher charged with trying to possess child pornography. Her comments had appeared in a newspaper article in which she expressed shock because the teacher had done a good job teaching.

For his part, Bilbray has come under fire for taking a junket to Australia and missing votes while serving in Congress. Busby, meanwhile, is under attack as a "taxing liberal" who favors rights for illegal immigrants and opposes English as an official language. She responded with footage of Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, whose immigration plan she supports.

"Both sides are trying out their heavy artillery to see what works for them in the fall," says political scientist Carl Luna of Mesa College.

Despite the millions of dollars pumped into the race, it's not clear that voters are paying much attention in the 50th District, which covers a wide swath of San Diego's northern suburbs - a Republican bastion, except for some Democratic pockets along the coast - and a bit of the city itself. Turnout is expected to be light, and a debate at a San Diego senior center last weekend attracted only a few dozen people.

The candidates didn't discuss Mr. Cunningham, the former longtime congressman convicted in a bribery scandal, nor did they touch on issues they agree on, such as support for abortion rights. Instead, they tackled illegal immigration and the war in Iraq.

"We can't send a message to the terrorists that we'll split and run," said Bilbray, who stands by the president in Iraq and who invited Vice President Dick Cheney to a fundraiser.

Brenda Bowman, a former Republican who recently switched parties, wasn't impressed and plans to vote for Busby. The Republicans "only care about big business and more money into their pockets," says Ms. Bowman, who works for a defense contractor. "They've stopped thinking for themselves."

Voters like Bowman pose a threat to Bilbray from his left flank, but he also faces potential problems on the right. Bill Hauf, a Republican, has targeted Bilbray with mailers accusing him of being "a Big Government Republican who represents politics as usual."

The winner of Tuesday's special election will serve only until the end of Cunningham's congressional term - and will have to run again in November. In a strange twist, the primary election to decide who will be on the ballot in November is also on Tuesday. In the GOP primary, Mr. Hauf is running against Bilbray.

Ultimately, Republicans disgruntled by Bush and Congress may be the deciding factor in Bilbray versus Busby. "The real question for the conservative wing is: Are they willing to ... suck it up and vote to help the party?" Dr. Luna says. If the Republicans can't win "with their home-field advantage, that's a sign the fans are deserting the home team."

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