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  •   Conservative Firebrand Bob Dornan Blazes Comeback Trail to the House

    Former congressman Bob Dornan (R-Calif.)
    Former congressman Bob Dornan (R-Calif.) will face Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) in a rematch of their 1996 contest. (AP)

    By Gebe Martinez
    LEGI-SLATE News Service
    June 3, 1998

    WASHINGTON — Proving that his political career crashed but did not burn when he lost his re-election bid two years ago, former California Rep. Robert "B-1 Bob" Dornan is flying high again after winning the Republican nomination to reclaim his old congressional seat.

    Dornan's victory in Tuesday's California primary – achieved without the support of congressional Republican leaders in Washington – sets the stage for a re-match in November against Democratic incumbent Loretta Sanchez.

    "It's going to be another interesting race" was the understated response of Rep. John Linder, R-Ga., the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee.

    The 1996 election fight between Dornan and Sanchez did not really end until last February, when the GOP-controlled House dismissed Dornan's charge that Sanchez's 984-vote victory margin was due to voter fraud by mostly Hispanic illegal immigrants.

    But Dornan never gave up.

    Angered by the election defeat and the lack of support by Republicans – the House has refused Dornan's request to pay his legal bills for his challenge of the election outcome – Dornan viewed Tuesday's election as "vindication," said his daughter, Theresa Cobban.

    "For him, this was full vindication. The party did let him down. But the people vindicated him; the voters vindicated him," Cobban said.

    Clearly, local and national Republican party leaders had preferred that Lisa Hughes, an Orange County attorney and a moderate, be the GOP nominee to face Sanchez in November because she carried less political baggage. Under the state's new "open primary" system, Dornan received 52 percent of the Republican votes cast, compared to 14 percent for Hughes.

    Dornan's 1996 election loss in the conservative bastion of Orange County – in a district that is mostly ethnic but has a conservative voter turnout base – was seen as an embarrassment for the party. Dornan himself accepted some of the responsibility for ignoring his last congressional race in favor of a quixotic bid for the GOP presidential nomination.

    Linder said that if Dornan had run as strong a campaign in 1996 as he did for this primary, he never would have lost the seat. "Dornan is finally taking it seriously," Linder added.

    The former congressman's election contest against Sanchez engulfed the entire House in a series of highly-charged and nasty arguments on and off the floor, leaving a bitterness that will likely carry on through November.

    "It's going to be a tough race [for Republicans] because he is really a lightening rod," Linder said of Dornan's renewed bid for the House seat from California's 42nd Congressional District.

    Still, the congressional campaign chairman pledged the party's full commitment to winning back the district that is viewed as traditionally Republican despite its majority Democratic registration.

    "We will support Dornan...That's a race we will concentrate on," Linder added.

    A look at the vote totals in the primary, which placed all candidates on the same ballot, shows Sanchez received 45 percent of all votes cast, compared with 28 percent for Dornan. Republican Party officials maintained that Sanchez's vote percentage – below the "safe" 55 percent level – demonstrates her vulnerability.

    One local GOP activist, who asked not to be named, said, "the party people wanted him gone...[but] you can't concede that district to the Democrats, no matter who the nominee is."

    In Democratic circles, Dornan's selection as the party's nominee was welcomed with glee.

    "Loretta is in great shape," said Olivia Morgan, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

    "Frankly, Bob Dornan has been one of her greatest campaign assets. He thrust her in the national spotlight, he awakened the Latino voters in California and simultaneously removed them from the Republican Party's efforts to win them," Morgan added.

    The House Democrats' campaign committee chairman, Rep. Martin Frost, D- Texas, said in a statement: "No GOP Losers Circle would be complete without Bob Dornan – and thanks to yesterday's California primary, it doesn't have to be!"

    Cobban, Dornan's daughter, suggested that national Republican and Democratic leaders do not underestimate his ability to win elections, as well as votes from Hispanics.

    "It was an open primary, which does prove that Hispanics came to the polls and voted for him," Cobban said.

    Despite the official election complaint which pitted Dornan against Hispanics, Linder agreed that Dornan would appeal to Hispanic voters.

    Referring to voters' approval of a state ballot measure to dismantle most bilingual education programs, Linder maintained Hispanics favored the idea and that Dornan probably would "appeal to the Hispanic vote on that issue."

    Should he go on to win, this would be the former congressman's second political comeback. He first was elected to the House in 1976 from a West Los Angeles district and served for three terms until dropping out to make a weak bid in 1982 for a Senate seat. Two years later, he returned to Congress after defeating a popular Democratic incumbent.

    Known for his strong conservatism, support for all things military and especially the B-1 bomber, and his fiery rhetoric – he has called President Clinton a "draft-dodging, pot smoking, multiple womanizer" – Dornan often intimidated his political foes into backing down rather than face a public confrontation with him.

    One of his conservative allies, House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey, R-Tex., refused at first to comment on Dornan's political staying power following Tuesday's primary. Shaking his head as he walked away, Armey finally offered: "Bob's a great guy. He's coming back."

    © Copyright 1998 LEGI-SLATE News Service

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