A Tightly Contested Rematch in California

In an 11th District rematch in California, incumbent Rep. Richard Pombo, a Republican, faces Democrat Jerry McNerney. McNerney's pro-environment stance failed to defeat Pombo in 2004. But the Iraq war has turned this year's campaign into a dead heat.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm Madeleine Brand.

Coming up: What made Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff such a successful crook? We talk to the author of a new book about him.

CHADWICK: First, we're exactly a week away from the midterm elections and continuing today our series of Tuesday reports on election races in the West. There is this possibility of a power shift in Washington, Republican to Democrat.

Madeleine, you've been up in Northern California following the story of a seven-term Republican congressman who may lose that seat to a relative newcomer. Who is this congressman and why is he in trouble?

BRAND: Alex, he is Congressman Richard Pombo and he wouldn't say he's in trouble, but he is on the defensive. Alex, listen to how he began a speech at a Republican fundraiser last week.

Rep. RICHARD POMBO (Republican, California): Obviously, things are really moving right now. There's a lot going on. And I didn't wear my hat today because I wanted you all to see I don't have horns. But, you know, there are some really big issues...

BRAND: Richard Pombo spoke last week to the San Ramon Valley Republican Women's Group in their monthly meeting at a local country club. Many of the ladies who lunched were old enough to be his mother.

Ms. LINDA SANCHEZ(ph): Yeah, I like him.

BRAND: Pombo is 45 years old. He comes from generations of ranchers, something that plays well in this largely agricultural district east of San Francisco.

Ms. SANCHEZ: I think he's terrific. And I think that he hasn't been given a fair share in the press. I think they've, you know, done a lot to dismiss him, and I think he's a great value.

BRAND: Linda Sanchez is referring to negative press Pombo has received because of his connection to corrupt Jack Abramoff. But Pombo told me he barely knew Abramoff.

Rep. POMBO: I Met the guy two or three times in my life. Out of the millions of dollars I've raised, he gave me $7000. And when I found out that he was in trouble and that he had done some things that were wrong, I donated the money to charity.

BRAND: But you do have this feeling out there with DeLay, with Abramoff, with Bob Ney, with Mark Foley, that there is a culture of corruption out there, that the voters are starting to get pretty angry about that.

Rep. POMBO: Well, I don't believe that there is a so-called culture of corruption. I do believe that there are guys who did things wrong, and they're going to jail for it. And they should.

BRAND: Are you surprised to find yourself in such a competitive race this time around?

Rep. POMBO: Not really. They knew that they couldn't come after me on issues, that they had to come after me and try to demonize me and they've spent millions of dollars doing it.

BRAND: Well, you've spent millions of dollars doing the same, too.

Rep. POMBO: Not demonizing anybody, because we haven't done it.

BRAND: Okay. Maybe not demonize, but that doesn't mean he hasn't gone negative. Here's one of Pombo's TV ads.

(Soundbite of political ad)

ANNOUNCER: Candidate Jerry McNerney thinks the war on terror is a joke. He said the whole idea of fighting terrorism overseas instead of here at home is, quote, "Tony Soprano logic." McNerney opposed letting law enforcement track..

BRAND: The war on terrorism and the war in Iraq are at the forefront of this race. Both candidates are using 9/11 in their stump speeches.

Rep. POMBO: September 11 changed my life.

BRAND: That's Congressman Pombo at the Republican luncheon. He says he watched the Pentagon go up in flames that day from the Capitol Dome.

Rep. POMBO: I had no idea what had happened in New York. I had no idea what had happened in a field in Pennsylvania. But I can tell you that if not for those brave men and women that were on that flight that they took down in Pennsylvania, in a farm field in Pennsylvania, I wouldn't be here.

Unidentified Man #1: Hi, there! Well, we finally got our dignitaries.

BRAND: Pombo's opponent, Jerry McNerney, spends a lot of time at tiny meet and greets like this one. Eight people have gathered in the living room of a retired college professor and his wife to meet the candidate.

PAUL: Paul.

Mr. JERRY MCNERNEY (Democratic Congressional Candidate): Paul?

PAUL: Pleased to meet you.

Mr. MCNERNEY: Oh, we haven't met before?

PAUL: I don't think so, no.

BRAND: Like Pombo, McNerney, too, claims a personal connection to 9/11. A mathematician and engineer, he tells the group how his son drafted him to run for office.

Mr. MCNERNEY: I got a call from my son, who had joined the service because of 9/11, and he had received his absentee ballot in the mail. He told me that, Dad, I'm going to write your name in as a write-in candidate and I want you to run for Congress.

BRAND: That story's also part of his campaign literature and it's in this political ad

(Soundbite of political ad)

Unidentified Man #2: I'm an Iraq war veteran.

Unidentified Man #3: Veteran.

Unidentified Man #4: Veteran.

Unidentified Man #2: Congressman Richard Pombo

Unidentified Man #3: ...voted against money for veteran's benefits.

Unidentified Man #4: Jerry McNerney will fight for us.

Unidentified Man #2: His own son volunteered for the military after 9/11.

Unidentified Man #3: We can trust Jerry McNerney.

BRAND: This is the second time Jerry McNerney has run against Pombo. Two years ago, he was trounced. This time, the race is a lot closer, neck and neck, according to McNerney's polling. Pombo wouldn't release his poll data.

But the race is on the National Democratic Party's hit list. The Republicans are concerned. They have flooded the race with millions in campaign cash and earlier this month called in the president to fundraise for Pombo.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: And all due respect to those of you here who are attorneys of law. We've got enough of those kind of people in Washington. It makes sense to have a rancher and a farmer.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Unidentified Announcer: Open season on our national parks. That's how The Los Angeles Times described Congressman Richard Pombo's proposal to sell off 15 of America's national parks.

BRAND: Pombo's property rights agenda has earned him enemies among environmental groups. They've targeted him for his crusade to rewrite the Endangered Species Act and they say he's a pawn of the oil and gas industry. But that has not resonated before, so why is this race so close now? This time, it always comes back to Iraq.

Mr. MCNERNEY: I had them with plan out there before Murtha did.

BRAND: Democrat Jerry McNerney says we need to get out soon.

Mr. MCNERNEY: We need a timetable; 9 months to a year would be about the right amount of time.

BRAND: And if in 9 to 10 months they haven't really gotten it together?

Mr. MCNERNEY: Well, in terms of our own security, we need to be realistic about getting out of Iraq. Because the longer we stay there, the more unstable it becomes, so we are going to have to be firm and pull out.

Rep. POMBO: I'm not in favor of being at war.

BRAND: Congressman Richard Pombo.

Rep. POMBO: But if you ask me should we set a timeline and pull the troops out in 9 to 12 months, the answer's no.

BRAND: But some of Pombo's most ardent supporters are no longer so certain. At the San Ramon Country Club, lifelong Republican Elizabeth Hutchins.

Ms. ELIZABETH HUTCHINS: The war, I have mixed feelings about it. I don't know whether it was good or bad. I am trying to decide that. And should we be there now? I don't know. I'll tell you quite honestly, I just don't know.

BRAND: It is still an uphill battle for Democrat Jerry McNerney. Republicans have a six point registration lead over Democrats in the district. But here's another indication this race is a tough one for Pombo, Alex: First lady Laura Bush will campaign for him this Friday.

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