- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 19, 2001

The battle over who will succeed Gary Condit to represent California's 18th Congressional District has not even officially begun, but already the dirt is flying literally.
Dennis Cardoza, the favorite to secure the Democratic nomination, yesterday faced accusations of being unfit for office after it emerged he ran a bar offering "soft porn" mud-wrestling nights.
The new revelations will embarrass Democrats, who are anxious to contain the scandal that became the sensation of the summer.
Mr. Cardoza, a Californian state assemblyman, will begin his campaign if Mr. Condit announces he will not seek another term in Congress an outcome that is widely expected.
Mr. Cardoza can count on strong support from the Democratic Party and is already well-known to many Condit voters because of their overlapping electoral districts in the Central Valley.
However, Mr. Cardoza suffered an early blow to his congressional hopes as local Republicans seized upon his exotic business activities.
During the mid-1990s, Mr. Cardoza took control of the family bowling alley business, which included Mulligan's, a rundown sports bar in Merced.
In a bid to draw in new customers, he organized events that included Chippendale-style male strippers and scantily clad women fighting in mud baths. The California Hardbodies female oil wrestling troupe was among the regular attractions.
The bar, located across the road from the Golden Valley High School, attracted the attention of the police, who paid it dozens of visits following reports of underage drinking, fights, drug use and even gunshots.
Mr. Cardoza, 42, who is married with three children, sold the bar when he ran for state office in 1996.
Prominent Republican and Merced wine grape grower Tom Berryhill, who unsuccessfully ran against Mr. Cardoza for the state Assembly, cast strong doubts on Mr. Cardoza's chances in the conservative district.
"It is quite a conservative area around here, and the moms really do not like this sort of stuff," he said. "He may be a front-runner at the moment, but Dennis is going to have a hard row to hoe."
Mr. Cardoza has been a longtime ally of Mr. Condit, who has been fighting for his political life since the revelation that he had an affair with missing former intern Chandra Levy.
The assemblyman scored his big political break in the 1980s when he worked for Mr. Condit first in the state Assembly in Sacramento and then on Capitol Hill.
In turn, Mr. Cardoza has employed members of Mr. Condit's family. The congressman's son, Chad, used to be Mr. Cardoza's chief of staff and his sister, Dovey Wilson, still in works in Mr. Cardoza's office.
A local Democratic rival to Mr. Cardoza, who asked not be named, said: "To have Dennis as our candidate would be to have another Gary [Condit] on our hands. Not only are they great friends but this mud-wrestling thing could prove to be very embarrassing."
Doug White, spokesman for Mr. Cardoza, reacted angrily to what he described as "Republican smears."
"These are just old negative campaign arguments which are being used again," he said. "For the past five years Dennis Cardoza has been one of the most successful legislators in the California state Assembly.
"Should he choose to run for Congress, he will run on the issues that matter to voters and not negative campaigning like this."
Officially, Mr. Condit insists he has yet to make up his mind on whether to run again next year. However, friends say privately he has already decided not to run.
The announcement is expected within weeks, likely before the planned "Condit Country" fund-raiser next month.
Mr. Cardoza is likely to face competition for the Democratic nomination from veteran state Sens. Jim Costa and Mike Machado and state Agriculture Secretary Bill Lyons.
State Sen. Dick Monteith is viewed as the favorite to become the Republican candidate.

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