James Gilchrist has never held political office, but the founder of the Minuteman Project expects his notoriety as a border enforcer to help him win California's special election to replace former Rep. Christopher Cox.
Mr. Gilchrist, whose organization received nationwide attention by protesting illegal immigration during an April border vigil in Arizona, said campaign contributions are flowing in from across the country and that his work on the immigration issue has broadened his knowledge on several others.
"This seemingly one issue affects schools, hospitals, crime, unemployment, transportation congestion and Social Security," said Mr. Gilchrist, 56, a retired accountant who received a Purple Heart as a Marine in Vietnam.
Mr. Gilchrist is running as an independent against 17 other candidates in the Oct. 4 special election to fill the seat Mr. Cox, a Republican, vacated after being nominated by President Bush to head the Securities Exchange Commission. California's 48th district is a Republican stronghold that encompasses most of Orange County.
"The thing that makes this race interesting and gives it a national twist is that Jim Gilchrist squeezed out [former Republican Rep.] Bob Dornan from doing a comeback campaign," said Allan Hoffenblum, Republican political analyst and publisher of the California Target Book, a statewide political tracking report.
Mr. Dornan, a 20-year congressional veteran, called Mr. Gilchrist last week before the Aug. 22 filing deadline and urged the activist to run for Congress.
"I asked if he was running, and he said, 'No, I'm supporting you,'" Mr. Gilchrist said.
A spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee did not return a call for comment on the race.
Although the congressional district is considered conservative, a Democrat or moderate Republican could win because of the state's unusual"open" primary rules in special elections.
All candidates are on the same ballot, regardless of party, and a candidate must receive more than 50 percent of the vote to win -- an unlikely event with nearly 20 candidates in the race.
If nobody wins, the top vote-getters of each party would face off in a Dec. 6 general election, and as the lone independent, Mr. Gilchrist is assured a spot.
A split among conservatives voting for Mr. Gilchrist and state Sen. John Campbell, reportedly backed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, could swing the vote to a Democratic candidate, Mr. Hoffenblum said.
"Gilchrist will appeal to the hard-core conservatives on the single issue of immigration, and one would think, take votes away from John Campbell," Mr. Hoffenblum said.
Democratic candidates include teacher Bea Foster, university professor and perennial candidate John Graham, marketing consultant Tom Pallow and lawyer Steve Young.
Other Republican candidates are former Assembly member Marilyn Brewer, dentist David R. Crouch and real estate agent Marsha A. Morris.
Both Mrs. Brewer and Mr. Campbell say they have raised $500,000 each. Mr. Gilchrist did not know how much money he had raised as of yesterday.