In any other race, it could have been doomsday. But when Rep. Loretta Sanchez told Univision in September that Vietnamese voters in her California congressional district were trying to steal her seat from Hispanics, it had only a moderate effect among the district’s large Vietnamese population.
Part of that, one Vietnamese newspaper editor told a local television station, is that the comments had to be translated from Spanish to English to Vietnamese — and by that time, many Vietnamese voters figured something had been lost in the translation.
Translation problems are just a sign of the times in California’s 47th District, which is among the most diverse in the country and which this year finds Mrs. Sanchez, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, defending her seat against Republican state Assemblyman Van Tran, who was born in Vietnam. It’s the first real election challenge Ms. Sanchez has faced since she won the seat in 1996 from Republican Rep. Robert K. Dornan.
“The conditions are right for a competitive race this year. Sanchez is now a long-term Democratic incumbent in an anti-incumbent year, Republicans have finally fielded a strong challenger in Van Tran, and the national Republican Party has targeted the seat,” said Kenneth P. Miller, an associate professor who teaches California politics at Claremont McKenna College.
The race is just one of a series in which Republicans have recruited promising minority candidates, though in pitting candidates of different minorities against each other in a general election, the California race could be a harbinger of the future.
A poll conducted for Mr. Tran last month found that he and Ms. Sanchez were tied at 39 percent each, while independent candidate Ceci Iglesias attracted 5 percent support.
But all sides caution that polling is difficult in the district.
English was the main language for less than a quarter of the residents, according to the latest Census figures. Adding to the complications, nearly 49 percent of residents are immigrants and two-thirds of them aren’t citizens, and aren’t entitled to vote.
Hispanics make up slightly more than two-thirds of residents, while Vietnamese are nearing 10 percent at more than 60,000 — one of the largest concentrations in the country.
That diversity is what struck former President Bill Clinton last month when he campaigned for Ms. Sanchez. He told the crowd that diversity was part of his pitch for bringing soccer’s World Cup back to the United States.
“The United States is the only country where you come, and no matter which 12 teams make the final you can fill the stadium with hometown fans,” he said.
Political analysts said the Vietnamese community already has been flexing political muscle, and Ms. Sanchez only inflamed things when she told Univision in September that the race for her seat was a contest between the two communities.
“The Vietnamese and the Republicans are, with an intensity, [trying] to take this seat, this seat [from which] we have done so much for our community — to take this seat and give it to this Van Tran, who is very anti-immigrant and very anti-Hispanic,” she said, according to the translation by the Orange County Register.
Mrs. Sanchez later told local press she had meant to single out only conservative Vietnamese, and she argued that she has been a good representative for all races and ethnicities.
In their only debate, Mr. Tran said Ms. Sanchez “has very little to show” for her nearly 14 years in office. Ms. Sanchez listed road projects for which she has secured federal aid and attacked Mr. Tran for state budget cuts that he supported in the Legislature.
Despite Mrs. Sanchez’s easy victories in recent years, the district is not overwhelmingly liberal. President George W. Bush won the district in his 2004 matchup against Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry.