Political 'High Noon' in Orange County

Orange County - Reagan country nonpareil - has very few safe neighborhoods for Democratic politicians. Making good on its national renown for conservative Republicanism, this wealthy county put more votes between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter in 1980 than did any other county in the country.

But there is also a workingman's Orange County, an inland chunk in the northwest populated largely by blue-collar Democrats.

This is California's 38th Congressional District, where Jerry Patterson - the only Democrat among the county's five congressmen - is struggling to win his sixth term to the House in what is likely to be one of the hottest races in the country this fall.

It may also be one of the most expensive, with a large share of the campaign funds coming from state and national sources. Republicans have targeted this race at the national level.

Mr. Patterson, former mayor of Santa Ana, is a self-described moderate. He has won some tough, but fairly low-cost, campaigns in the past.

His Republican opponent this round is Robert K. Dornan, a television talk-show host and former congressman from the Santa Monica area. Mr. Dornan, a New Right conservative, is a formidable fund-raiser with a national list of contributors.

Dornan moved to Garden Grove from the west side of Los Angeles this spring to vie for one of only two or three Democratic House seats in the state that Republicans have marked winnable.

Democrats have a 55 percent to 36 percent registration edge here, but President Reagan's popularity with Orange County Democrats is shaping up as an important factor in the campaign.

Twice in past campaigns, Dornan has been a party to the nation's most expensive House race of the year, both times beating liberal Democrats.

In 1982 the Democratic politicians who mapped out California's congressional districts for the 1980s carved Dornan's district out from under him. He ran for the Republican nomination to the US Senate, losing to San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson, who defeated then-Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. in the final election.

Dornan dubs himself a mainstream Reagan Republican and calls Patterson an outright liberal wearing a moderate's clothing. Patterson shows letters of appreciation the President has sent him for support on various issues, and brands Dornan a far-right extremist. (The Dornan campaign got the White House to stop sending thank-you letters to Patterson in May.)

The National Journal rated Patterson in a tie for the 19th-most-liberal member of the House in 1983, a rating the congressman considers too high.

Dornan, when he was in the House, was among the most conservative members of Congress, especially on defense and family issues. He was known as ''B-1 Bob'' for his unstinting support of the B-1 bomber program and as an unapologetic advocate of US involvement in Vietnam.

If the Reagan factor cuts in favor of the conservative Dornan, Patterson has a counterweapon in the Dornan-as-carpetbagger issue. He has coined the rubric ''Beverly Hills Bob'' for Dornan, who was registered to vote in Beverly Hills last election.

''The carpetbagger issue is not going to be an easy one to overcome,'' says Dornan campaign manager Brian O'Leary Bennett. But he says he feels that Dornan is actually better suited to this Orange County district than to the one he moved from.

''These are our type of Democrats,'' says Mr. Bennett; ''blue-collar, middle-class, family-oriented, tax-paying people. We do well with those people, much better than with the country-club Republicans who backed us in West Los Angeles.''

The Dornan boys, like many of the sons of these neighborhoods, ride dirt bikes in the dry hills to the east, Bennett points out. Unlike the wealthy Republicans of West Los Angeles, he adds, the people of this district are not ''embarrassed to talk family, faith, and morality.''

But Patterson is the candidate with roots here, and Bennett admits that he is well liked in these parts.

This part of Orange County was populated in the late 1950s by young families just starting out. ''I was one of those,'' Congressman Patterson says. It is a district of wide, unshaded streets; one-level stucco houses built in the 1950s and '60s; campers, vans, and sometimes speedboats in the driveways; Mexican fast food and strip shopping centers flanking vast six-lane avenues. Manufacturing jobs in the aerospace industry support many of the families.

But the district is not nearly so homogeneous anymore. A quarter of the registered voters are Hispanic, and there is a thriving population of Vietnamese refugees. Patterson says he has won 87 percent of the Hispanic vote in the past.

The Dornan campaign will be working hard to cut into that vote. In fact, says Bennett, the presence of the Hispanics is one reason this race was targeted by the Republicans nationally.

''To win the Hispanic vote with a vocal, conservative Republican is good for the party's image,'' he explains.

The Dornan campaign plans to spend at least $1 million on this race. Half the funds are expected to be raised through New Right direct-mail wizard Richard Viguerie in Washington, the other half through Sacramento-based Tim Macy, who does mailings for populist conservative causes.

Patterson aims to spend at least $600,000. ''I can't raise a million,'' he says. ''I know how to raise $200,000. It's not a picnic, but it's not a real push. ... This year I'll have to be much more aggressive in campaigning and raising money.''

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