STEVE INSKEEP, host:
A special election in Orange County, California, may turn in part on the issue of illegal immigration. Five candidates are trying for the seat vacated by Christopher Cox. He took over the chairmanship of the Securities and Exchange Commission, leaving an open seat in Congress. And Independent candidate who is an anti-illegal immigrant activist, is trying to take away votes from the Republican candidate. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.
CARRIE KAHN reporting:
Youthful, rich and conservative, Republican John Campbell should be a shoo-in to fill Chris Cox's vacant seat in this affluent coastal region of Orange County. He's currently the state senator for much of the district, a fourth-generation Californian and a long-time businessman, local ties Campbell plays up while stumping for votes.
State Senator JOHN CAMPBELL (Candidate for US House): And if any of you ever bought a Saturn in Orange County, you bought it from a dealership that I built. If you bought a Saab in Orange County, you bought it from a dealership that I built, or if you were ever around Campbell Nissan or Campbell Ford or Campbell Mazda...
KAHN: If Campbell is the establishment candidate, then challenger Jim Gilchrist is anything but. Gilchrist is a former accountant who last year formed the Minutemen, a group of self-appointed border-watchers who critics dismiss as vigilantes. The attention inspired Gilchrist to run for Congress in Orange County where he's airing attack ads accusing his opponent Campbell of being soft on illegal immigrants.
(Soundbite of political ad)
Unidentified Man #1: John Campbell got his start in politics selling used cars, and he hasn't changed a bit.
Unidentified Woman: So, honest John, why did you vote for in-state tuition for illegal aliens?
Unidentified Man #2: Oh, that was a mistake. Listen to that engine. Sounds like a Ferrari, doesn't it?
(Soundbite of noisy car engine)
Unidentified Woman: Well, honest John, what about your vote to recognize Mexican illegal alien ID cards?
KAHN: Gilchrist has hammered Campbell's past votes for limited benefits for illegal immigrants, Campbell counters by calling Gilchrist a one-issue candidate.
(Soundbite of group reciting the Pledge of Allegiance)
KAHN: But at a recent fund-raiser in front of a hundred supporters, Gilchrist shot back. He says rampant illegal immigration touches all issues from public school overcrowding to rising health-care costs and even Southern California's notorious traffic congestion.
Mr. JIM GILCHRIST (Candidate for US House): I remember the days when I could drive along the San Bernardino Freeway, when I first moved to California, into LA in 45 minutes. It was a 42-mile trip. That same trip now takes me almost two hours.
KAHN: Gilchrist is running in the race as a candidate of the American Independent Party, founded by the late Alabama governor, George Wallace. To win, Gilchrist will need lots of Republicans to cross party lines. Campbell says that's unlikely. He says he's more in step with the district's voters who are interested in staying the course in Iraq, making President Bush's tax cuts permanent and drilling for oil in Alaska.
Mr. CAMPBELL: Because people understand that even though that's a very important issue, illegal immigration, there's a lot of other issues as well.
KAHN: Most voters are more concerned about the war and the economy, according to Amy Walter with The Cook Political Report.
Ms. AMY WALTER (The Cook Political Report): Those are the sorts of things that certainly when you ask voters point-blank `What are the issues that concern you most?' those dominate.
KAHN: Gilchrist disagrees and says he's tapped into a public anger that is growing.
Mr. GILCHRIST: If I win this election, it will literally change the entire political landscape of this nation from San Diego, California, all the way to Bangor, Maine.
KAHN: For now, Gilchrist is still regarded as an underdog, but analysts say with the voter turnout expected to be extremely low, this race is hard to predict.
Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Los Angeles.
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