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Calif. Race Could Signal Partisan Shift

Candidate Brian Bilbray (R) has rebuffed calls to identify himself as a lobbyist on the ballot.
Candidate Brian Bilbray (R) has rebuffed calls to identify himself as a lobbyist on the ballot. (Denis Poroy - AP)

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By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 10, 2006

LA JOLLA, Calif. -- Francine Busby is a Democratic candidate for Congress. But you could not tell her party affiliation by watching her TV ads.

Running in a special election to be held Tuesday to replace convicted felon Randy "Duke" Cunningham, Busby has played down her party affiliation to the point that it is almost her dark little secret. Yet in the race to replace the Republican war-hero-turned-corrupt-pol, Busby is giving the Democratic Party tantalizing hope that her race against what her party has dubbed "the culture of corruption" might just succeed. Busby leads the pack of 18 candidates (including 14 Republicans), garnering anywhere from 35 to 45 percent in polls.

Political analysts said the race for the 50th Congressional District could serve as a bellwether for races across the nation. If the self-proclaimed soccer mom wins the vote, it would be a significant upset in a district that combines the golf-crazy, socially liberal "beach Republicans" of the moneyed coast north of San Diego with the golf-crazy, "red meat" Republicans of the inland exurbs. Registration figures in the 50th District tilt largely Republican, 44 percent, with 30 percent Democrat and 21 percent undecided.

"If Busby wins, that would be the political equivalent of a tectonic shift," said Amy Walter, senior editor at the Washington-based Cook Political Report. "The next story you would hear is this is the first rumblings in what would be a major earthquake in November."

Busby, who switched to the Democratic Party in 1998, ran as a sacrificial lamb against Cunningham in 2004. But since his sentencing to more than eight years in federal prison on charges of evading taxes and accepting $2.4 million in bribes, the party has started paying her some attention. She gave the Democrats' rebuttal to a weekly radio address by President Bush and used it to denounce the Dubai ports deal as a threat to U.S. security. Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, former Virginia governor Mark R. Warner and Sen. John F. Kerry held campaign events for her. She has raised the most money of all the candidates -- $1.4 million, including $100,000 from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. MoveOn.org has also contributed cash and lent her assistance. National Republicans poured $300,000 in the final week into ads criticizing Busby for accepting donations from lobbyists.

"In the past, I wasn't even on the radar screen," Busby said at an interview after an appearance at a Kiwanis Club breakfast meeting in this seaside community. "But as soon as this became an open seat and a viable race, they jumped in and became supportive, but not overly supportive."

At the event, attended by 25 men and two women, mostly in business and 100 percent Republican, Busby detailed her résumé -- daughter of a sausage manufacturer, Italian studies major, Girl Scout leader, Sunday school teacher, travel agent and school board member -- and then took questions on abortion (she is pro-choice), immigration (she is for an amnesty program for illegal immigrants, but she does not call it that) and the inheritance tax (she is for a complete repeal). This is, after all, La Jolla, where the median house goes for $1.75 million. Busby was surprisingly well received even when she was asked why she did not identify herself as a Democrat in her ads.

"Almost everywhere I go, I say it's not about Republican and Democrat," she said. "The country has been divided by animosity, and people are tired of it."

Just as Busby does not emphasize her Democratic ties, all but one of her 14 Republican competitors have distanced themselves from Bush. In interviews, nine of them identified themselves as "Reagan Republicans."

One of the Republican front-runners, Brian Bilbray, a former congressman, lifeguard and surfer, accused Bush of "criminal neglect" in dealing with illegal immigration.

"He's lost all credibility with homeland security," Bilbray said, adding that the nation's "20 million people on welfare should be put to work doing the jobs the illegals are doing now."

Bilbray and other Republicans have sought to move the election away from Busby's theme -- fighting "the culture of corruption" -- and toward immigration, an issue of great concern in northern San Diego County. Bilbray has been especially keen on this because for the past several years he has been doing lobbying work in Washington and once, while in Congress, accepted a trip to the Pacific islands from convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Republican rival Eric Roach sued Bilbray in an unsuccessful attempt to force him to identify himself as a lobbyist on the ballot.

Other than Busby, Roach is the campaign's dark horse. Among three successful businessmen who have spent more than $1 million each in the race, he is considered so puzzling that his Republican opponents have pooled resources to try to come up with dirt on him, apparently to no avail. A father of five, Roach described himself as representing the "conservative wing" of the Republican Party. He, too, criticized Bush -- for allowing too much government spending.

If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote Tuesday, the top finisher from each party will face off on June 6. The winner of that contest takes a seat in Congress and immediately begins the campaign for the November election.

Carl Luna, a professor of political science at San Diego's Mesa College, predicted that Busby would fall short of the 50 percent needed on Tuesday and then lose the election in the runoff to a Republican in June. "The district is not quite a swing district," he said. "The Democrats hope they can get a quick bloody nose out of this race. But I doubt it."


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