As the high-stakes battle for control of Congress steals more of the spotlight from the presidential race, cliche analyses abound. It's President Clinton's coattails and the unpopularity of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) helping Democrats, while overstuffed campaign coffers and public distrust of one-party government aid the GOP.
All those factors are at work here in Southern California, a major battleground in the fight for the House. But three key races being run between the San Fernando Valley and San Diego may in the end produce no turnovers; not for the expected partisan reasons but because of such eccentric factors as a photo of Colin L. Powell, an apology and a split endorsement from a group of gay activists.
On paper, for example, this 24th Congressional District in the populous San Fernando Valley, north and west of downtown Los Angeles, is a tempting target for Republicans. In 1994, veteran Democratic Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson won by only 3,536 votes. He announced his retirement last year and his 1994 challenger -- a highly credentialed and wealthy young businessman-lawyer-government official named Rich Sybert -- accelerated a campaign he had never shut down.
The winner of a crowded Democratic primary was Brad Sherman, a baldish accountant and elected member of the California Board of Equalization, the state tax commission, whose visage and occupation allowed Sybert to send out a mailing with a big photo of his opponent and the circus-size headline: "Don't Laugh. This tax collector wants to be our Congressman."
But it was another Sybert mail-out that has become the talk of the district. This one, featuring a photograph of a handsome, youthful Sybert shaking hands with the then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said: "Join General Colin Powell and these Republican leaders (listed below) in strongly supporting Rich Sybert for Congress."
The picture, taken during the year Sybert worked in the Pentagon after winning a prestigious White House fellowship, was legitimate. But when Powell was asked about the endorsement, his spokesman quickly said the retired general has no involvement in any congressional races outside his home state of Virginia. Sherman labeled it "a complete fabrication" and was delighted when the Los Angeles Times ran a story headlined, "Sybert Claim of Support From Powell Called Fraud."
In a metropolis where "congressional races operate under the radar," as Sybert's campaign manager said, devoid of TV coverage or advertising, converting an opponent's expensive mailer into a self-damaging news story is a big deal, perhaps big enough to deny the GOP a House seat it hoped to win.
A hundred miles south, in a portion of San Diego County, the shoe is on the other foot. The 49th Congressional District is a classic swing district. In 1994, Brian P. Bilbray, a local GOP official, defeated freshman Rep. Lynn Schenk (D) by only 4,686 votes. Now, with Clinton well ahead in the area and an expanded presidential year voter turnout expected, Bilbray's tenure seemed likely to be as short as Schenk's.
Bilbray is high on the list of Republican freshmen the Democrats need to knock off to win back the House. His was one of the first districts targeted by organized labor for an "informational" media campaign aimed at defeating supporters of Gingrich and the "Contract With America." It is also one of the first districts where labor has cut short its advertising blitz.
Much of the reason has to do with the Democratic challenger, economist and college professor Peter Navarro. Navarro is no newcomer to San Diego politics. He has run for three other offices, including the mayor's job in 1992, sometimes as a Republican, sometimes as an independent and now as a Democrat. He has come close, but he never has been able to win.
More importantly, he began this campaign by publicly apologizing for the tactics he had used in his previous races, including a controversial attack on the jailed former husband of his mayoral opponent. In his first televised debate with Bilbray, Navarro said, "I have in the past engaged in negative campaigns. It was the biggest mistake I ever made."
Bilbray has picked up that sound-bite and made it the centerpiece of his own ad, charging Navarro with hypocrisy for allowing the California Democratic Party to put up generic ads, similar to those seen all across the country, that link the local GOP congressman to Gingrich. In the Bilbray response ad, the voice-over says, "Now Navarro has his liberal supporters out doing his dirty work for him."
On Friday, Navarro put up his first TV ad of the campaign, showing a grainy black-and-white photo of an "attacking" Bilbray, followed by a picture of an actor/referee calling: "Personal foul!" Then the handsome Navarro looks into the camera and says, "In the past, I made the same mistake Brian Bilbray is making now -- getting personal. I learned from that mistake. This campaign is about the big issues: protecting the environment, education, Medicare and pensions, and making sure Newt Gingrich doesn't hurt us any more."
Navarro goes into the final weeks with less than half as much cash on hand as Bilbray, and is counting on Clinton coattails and a sophisticated voter-contact computer program to pull him through. But a GOP insider, who said Bilbray is holding onto a double-digit lead, said, "He really has dodged the bullet. His opponent is just not a credible messenger."
North of here, in Long Beach, two-term Rep. Stephen Horn (R) is hoping the voters make the same decision about his opponent, Rick Zbur (D), an environmental lawyer who moved from Los Angeles to make this race. Even more than Navarro, Zbur has focused his entire campaign on the contention that Horn "is hurting us" by supporting the budget plan passed by the Republican Congress and vetoed by Clinton almost a year ago.
Horn, a former president of Cal State-Long Beach, represents the most heavily Democratic district held by any California Republican and has been called the most moderate GOP member in the state.
In a cable television debate in Long Beach early this week, Zbur was constantly trying to shred that characterization by citing "cuts" the GOP budget would have imposed on Medicare, education and environmental programs. He opened and closed the debate by linking Horn to Gingrich.
But Horn has found help coming from quarters most Republicans do not have available, or may not want. "I may be the only candidate you can find who has been endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce -- and the Sierra Club," Horn said.
Even more tellingly, Horn brags that the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights advocacy group, has given him a joint endorsement with Zbur, who is openly gay.
Clinton is expected to carry all three of these districts, but conversations with voters last week provided anecdotal evidence of polls showing that many would prefer not to give all power in Washington to one party. That inclination -- along with the personal factors -- may maintain the same pattern of representation in all three of these districts. Staff researcher Barbara J. Saffir contributed to this report. BATTLE OF THE HOUSE Current breakdown* Democrats need to gain 20 seats to win control. 197 Dem. 235 Rep. Of the Republican seats: 212 are being defended by incumbents, 70 of them freshmen 23 are open Of the Democratic seats: 168 are being defended by incumbents 29 are open, 17 the South *Plus one independent and two vacancies