Cheney Tries to Boost Calif. Republicans

The Associated Press
Tuesday, May 23, 2006; 9:26 PM

SAN DIEGO -- Vice President Dick Cheney jetted into San Diego to boost the political fortunes and the campaign war chest of congressional hopeful Brian Bilbray, a Republican locked in a tight battle for what normally is a safe GOP seat.

Cheney's appearance Tuesday, at the end of a two-day fundraising tour through California, underscored the importance of the 50th Congressional District seat, left vacant by the scandal that sent former Republican Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham to prison. An upset victory by Francine Busby in the June 6 special election runoff for the seat would give Democrats a boost as they head into the fall election and look to wrest power in the closely divided House.

"Right now, the eyes of the nation are on the 50th District of California," Cheney said. "We will continue making progress for the American people and it's vital we have strong partners in that effort like Brian Bilbray in Congress."

The $2,100-a-plate luncheon raised more than $200,000 for Bilbray's campaign in a race that has already cost candidates and party committees more than $10 million.

Busby, who has campaigned for energy-policy reform as gas prices have spiked, criticized Bilbray for appearing with Cheney.

"While Cheney is here raising money, Bilbray should stand up for consumers and demand answers from the vice president," Busby said before the event.

Cheney was joined on the dais by San Diego-area Republicans including Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista; Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine; and former Gov. Pete Wilson _ all part of a Southern California GOP establishment that has endorsed Bilbray to replace Cunningham.

Cunningham resigned in November amid a corruption and bribery scandal. He pleaded guilty to accepting more than $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors and was sentenced in March to more than eight years in federal prison.

About two dozen protesters, some waving rainbow-colored flags emblazoned with the word "Peace," lined the road leading to the Sheraton hotel where Cheney spoke.

Before heading to the Bilbray event, Cheney spoke from the deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard to 3,000 Marines and sailors at Naval Base San Diego.

The vice president said 250,000 Iraqi forces have been trained by U.S. troops.

"As those forces gain strength and experience and as the political process advances, we will be able to decrease troop levels without decreasing our capacity," Cheney said. "As always, decisions about troop levels will be driven by conditions on the ground and the judgments of our military commanders and not by artificial timelines set by politicians in Washington, D.C."

Cheney's stop in San Diego followed a private luncheon Monday in Sacramento for Rep. John Doolittle of Roseville and a fundraising cocktail hour in Stockton for Rep. Richard Pombo of Tracy _ the two veteran California GOP congressman who took the most money from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his clients.

Pombo received $31,250 from Abramoff and his clients, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan watchdog group that analyzed political contributions. Pombo has donated to charity the $7,000 he received directly from Abramoff. Doolittle received $56,250 from the former lobbyist and his clients, according to the group, and has kept the money, saying there was nothing improper about it.

Cheney's speech Monday night brought in over $200,000 for Pombo, an eight-term congressman, who faces a surprisingly strong primary challenger. Pete McCloskey, a 78-year-old war hero and former congressman, has challenged Pombo on his environmental record.

The vice president called the midterm election a referendum on how the two major parties view the war on terror. As he has in the past, Cheney said he welcomed that debate.

"There's a reason we have not been hit again," Cheney said.


Associated Press Writers Aaron C. Davis in Stockton and Thomas Watkins in San Diego contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Associated Press