He was the dean of California's congressional delegation, a liberal Democrat who represented the growing blue-collar cities east of Los Angeles for 28 years. But Rep. George Brown's death this summer at age 79 has set off a tumultuous scramble for his seat that could culminate Tuesday in a special election.

What's known as the Inland Empire of Southern California is solid Democratic country, and Brown had drubbed his Republican opponent last year, so most political analysts expect the party to hold on to its coveted seat.

It is still anyone's guess who might win it, however.

Five Democrats, including Brown's widow, are in the close race and their campaigns have been dominated by debate on a subject that many California voters seem preoccupied with these days: gun control.

"It really has emerged as a very central issue," said Luis Tolley, the western regional director for Handgun Control Inc. "The intensity of people's feelings about it here seems greater than ever before."

Polls suggest that the race could be a duel between Marta Marcia Brown and state Sen. Joe Baca. But some Democrats worry that a deeply divided vote or an exceedingly low turnout could propel the lone Republican, Elia Pirozzi, into contention. If none of the candidates wins 50 percent of the vote, there will be a runoff in November.

Brown and Baca hold similar party-line views on issues such as improving education and health care, but they have been battling intensely over gun measures. Brown, who was a top aide to the congressman for nine years before they were married, has accused Baca of being a pawn of the National Rifle Association. She says that she strongly favors measures to ban assault weapons and cheap handguns.

Baca has been a member of the California legislature for seven years, and has had strong NRA support. But now he contends that his views on gun control have changed. He even voted recently for a bill to require trigger locks on handguns.

If Brown wins, she will become the third congressional widow in California's delegation. The other two are Reps. Mary Bono (R) and Lois Capps (D).

A Million Get Mailing From First Lady

"The American dream is still a fragile notion" for many families. Says who?

Says Hillary Rodham Clinton, wife of the president who often boasts of the nation's economic boom. In a mass-mail fund-raising letter for her all-but-official Senate campaign in New York, the first lady says, "there is a tremendous challenge ahead of us and I'll need all the help you can give."

An enclosed card suggests the help come in the form of checks ranging from $25 to $1,000.

Clinton's two-page letter went to more than a million people nationwide, said campaign spokesman Howard Wolfson. Thus far it has done "very well," he said yesterday, although he offered no specific numbers.

In the letter, Clinton cites her "listening sessions" with New York voters. "All across the state," she wrote, "people have told me that even though times are better, the American dream is still a fragile notion for their families. And I understand. . . . I haven't even formally announced my candidacy and already the divisive, negative Republican campaigning has begun. Let's show them that those are the politics of the past."

Staff writer Charles Babington contributed to this report.