Dems, GOP Battle for 'Duke' Cunningham's Seat

The race to replace former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-CA) enters the final stretch this week. Cunningham went to prison earlier this year after pleading guilty to taking bribes. Voters in the conservative San Diego-area district will choose between Democratic school board member Francine Busby and former Republican congressman Brian Bilbray. From member station KPBS in San Diego, Alison St. John reports.

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One political consultant says the San Diego area district once held by the bribery convicted former Congressman Randy Cunningham, it's not just red, it's ruby red. But Republicans are worried about a special election next week to fill out the last seven months of the term. Both parties are throwing millions of dollars into their candidate's campaigns there and they are because you could see this as a test of President Bush's sunken poll numbers and whether they GOP can hold the House in the November elections. From KPBS in San Diego, Alison St. John reports.

ALISON ST. JOHN reporting:

The 50th District Congressional elections should be a slam dunk for Republicans. But instead the outcome of next week's vote is still a toss-up. Vice President Dick Cheney came across country last week to stump for the Republican candidate, an indication just how close the race has become, and how important it is to the party.

Vice President DICK CHENEY: Right now the eyes of the nation are on the 50th District of California. The election here in the 50th is the first of the campaigns that we're going to see now through November 7.

ST. JOHN: And it's an election in the district that's been such a solidly Republican stronghold, the GOP cannot afford to lose. GOP candidate Brian Bilbray, with three terms in Congress already under his belt, faces Democrat Francine Busby, a local school board member with no national political experience. Busby, who wears pearls and a neat perm, is the David to Bilbray's Goliath. He has a more worldly image and touts his greater experience as an asset to the community.

Mr. BRIAN BILBRAY (Congressional Candidate): Every elected mayor in this district has endorsed me because I can work with them and help them in Washington to get the job done. You can't ask somebody who've served in a small school district for six years to know what needs to be done and how to get it done.

ST. JOHN: But Francine Busby says this race is about cleaning up corruption in Congress. She says Bilbray's credentials as part of the old boy's network are a liability rather than an asset. She points to his years as a lobbyist after he left Congress and says voters are looking for someone very different in this election.

Ms. FRANCINE BUSBY (Congressional Candidate): Many people feel that their government is so big and so distant and so hard for them to touch that they become hopeless that they have any say in it. And I think that I will be the hope that there is democracy, that they can try to send a message for change.

ST. JOHN: Busby's had her share of support from the Democratic Party big guns. Nancy Pelosi flew to San Diego for a fund-raiser this week. Senator Dianne Feinstein is due on the weekend. And on Senator Barbara Boxer's website, Busby came top of a list of Democratic candidates to support around the country. Meanwhile, Bilbray suffered a setback this week when Senator John McCain abruptly canceled his stump visit, citing Bilbray's attacks on his proposed immigration reforms. Bilbray favors tough border enforcement and says McCain's proposals smack of amnesty, which he condemns.

For her part, Democrat Francine Busby very publicly supports McCain's proposal. As the candidates spar on the campaign trail, the airwaves are full of brutal TV ads paid for by the National Republican and Democratic parties.

(Soundbite of TV ad)

Unidentified Announcer: Francine Busby, she's taken thousands through a shadowy liberal group that's for raising taxes and opposed to funding for our troops. The National Republican Congressional Committee is responsible for the content of this advertising.

(Soundbite of TV ad)

Unidentified Announcer: Brian Bilbray's such a good friend to lobbyists, he became one himself. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is responsible for the content of this advertising.

ST. JOHN: In the end, party loyalty may be the big issue rather than individual candidates credentials. Political science professor Carl Luna of San Diego Mesa College.

Professor CARL LUNA (San Diego Mesa College): This race is more about do you want the Republicans in power or not? At the end of the day, you hold your nose and you vote for your party candidate.

ST. JOHN: Whoever wins Tuesday's runoff election, the candidates will face a rematch in November when they vie for full two year term in Congress. Democrats are gleeful about how close the race has become in a district where Republicans should win hands down. As one party website puts it, this election is just the beginning. This year, we'll be playing on their turf all over the country. For NPR News, I'm Alison St. John in San Diego.

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