Before the election in 1976 as the Republican representatives from California's 27th Congressional District, Robert K. Dornan worked as an actor, television newscaster and talk show host. He is the nephew of the late actor Jack Haley.
Doran's Democratic challenger in the Nov. 4 election is Carey Peck, the 31-year-old son of actor Gregory Peck. And voters in the district, which runs along Santa Monica Bay, include such luminaries as Ronald and Nancy Reagan, and Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden.
So people here are calling this race "Star Wars." But "Jaws II" might be more apt.
This is a rerun of the 1978 race that Dornan, 47, won by just two points. And jaws are active in this campaign, pouring out oratory and occassionally drawing blood.
Voters here are concerned mostly about inflation. Peck is a self-described "fiscal conservative," who often sounds like a Republican unless he is talking about the two issues where his opponent and Dornan's normally conservative constituents part company: abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment. One result is that issues aren't getting too much attention.
The contest is a unique opportunity for a California Democrat, caught in the midst of the West's conservative tide and Reagan enthusiasm, to unseat an incumbent Republican. Thus it is no surprise that each of the candidates will raise and spend in the neighborhood of $400,000 apiece. What is surprising is the level of mud into which this campaign often sinks.
Dornan is one of California's most flamboyant politicians and is well known in his district. So he might have been expected to run the traditional incumbent's campaign, saying little about his opponent and leaving it to Peck to explain to the voters why they should oust their congressman in favor of a young man whose work experience consists mostly of the Peace Corps and a stint on Capitol Hill as a Senate aide.
But Bob Dornan cannot stop talking about Carey Peck.
The congressman claims that his opponent accepted an illegal campaign contribution. Peck denies it. The ex-convict who is alleged to have given the money to Peck later waffled on his story and now denies it. And the Justice Department says it has investigated the charge and found it false.
But Dornan, although he has pledged more than once that he will not repeat that accusation during this campaign, seems unable to let it go.
At a candidates' forum in the South Bay last Monday night Dornan and Peck shared a platform for the first time this year. It was Peck who first departed from the intended discussion of issues by stating that "one of the issues" he wanted to challenge the incumbent on was "his style of campaigning." i
In particular, Peck objected to Dornan having referred to him as a "sick, pompous little ass." Dornan subsequently told a reporter: "I never said that. Why would I call him sick? He's abviously a tall, healthy guy. What I said that he is a sycophant and a pompous little ass."
"And," Peck continued, "he attacked my father on the floor of the House. . . [he owes me] an apology."
Then it was Dornan's turn. He again brought up the illegal contribution matter. Dornan said he would file charges against Peck as soon as Ronald Reagan is elected president and gets rid of Jimmy Carter's "highly politicized" Justice Department.
Then he complained that Peck never called to congratulate him on election night in 1978. With that, the congressman angrily slapped a coin down on the table in front of Peck and said: "So here's a dime, character. Use it to call and congratulate me on Nov. 4." Peck just smiled.
The next day, Dornan admitted that the illegal contribution charge had "boomeranged" and done more damage to his campaign than to Peck's.
Dornan said he wished he had stayed away from the candidates' forum and "taken the flak for not showing up. Or maybe I should let him do a shoft-shoe dance on my forehead and just restrain myself. But it is insufferable for him to ask me for an apology, when he owes me so many. And he uses those buzz words, 'He's attacked my family,' because he knows his father is a respected, elegant man."
Peck's campaign manager, Terry Pullan, concedes that his side needs to keep Dornan on the offensive. "If we win," Pullan says, "a lot of the credit will be due Bob Dornan."
When Peck is not trying to goad his opponent into campaign theatrics, he is out in the precincts he has been walking for the better part of three years, saying the same words again and again: "Hi. I'm Carey Peck, I'm running for Congress. How're you doing? I hope you'll take the time to read the brochure, it's just a straightforward issues statement." Big smile. Extended hand. "Great to catch you at home. 'Bye."
Peck has walked so many precincts, rung so many doorbells and smiled at so many people that the faced become a blur. And sometimes skin blurs into fur, so that when a dog whose registered voter-owner is talking to the candidate barks for attention, Peck smiles down and says to the dog, "Hey, how're you doing?"
But Peck stops short of giving the animal a brochure. And if the dog could talk, he probably wouldn't ask for one. He'd just ask that burning question that most humans keep asking this candidate: "Is Gregory Peck really your father?"