Wednesday, May 24, 2006

As the race to replace the imprisoned Randy “Duke” Cunningham moves closer to the June 6 election day, the stakes, intensity and consequences begin to surface in magnitudes never seen before in the bid for California’s 50th Congressional District. Not only are San Diego voters selecting someone suitable to represent their needs, but it is also very likely that the winner of this race will determine which party ultimately gains control over the House — a fact not lost on either party at the national level.

Both the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Democratic National Committee are aggressively campaigning for their respective candidates, Republican Brian Bilbray and Democrat Francine Busby. San Diego airwaves are filled with Washington-backed money running a barrage of personal-attack ads, while party heavyweights Gen. Wesley Clark, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. John McCain are all scheduled to make local appearances over the course of the next week.

Recently, I had the opportunity to get an up close and personal view of both candidates, while hosting a 90-minute debate between Mr. Bilbray and Mrs. Busby on my radio show in San Diego. Taking advantage of this San Diego exclusive, as the candidates will not debate each other on any other talk show, I found both candidates to be likable, sincere people who differ vastly on the key issues and in their personal style, not unlike the political split that separates America.

Make no mistake, the key issue in the 50th District race is illegal immigration. On this issue, Mr. Bilbray has been active for many years. If there is one person this side of Lou Dobbs who has been way out in front of the rest of society on illegal immigration as an issue, it is Brian Bilbray. In 1997 (he served in Congress from 1994-2001), Mr. Bilbray sponsored a bill to deny citizenship at birth to children born in America to parents of illegal status. After he left Congress, Mr. Bilbray worked for the Federation of American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a conservative non-profit group whose mission is to reform our nation’s immigration policies. He opposes amnesty for illegal immigrants. He favors tough penalties on employers who hire illegal workers and a required worker eligibility verification program, implemented through a national database that would eliminate forged documents. He supports the use of military at the border. Clearly, he is a hard-line conservative.

On this issue, Mrs. Busby takes a much more liberal view. She believes illegal immigrants should be given an opportunity toward citizenship, an approach Mr. Bilbray considers as amnesty. She supports the McCain-Kennedy bill, which would legalize many of the 12 million people currently believed to be living in the United States. Mr. Bilbray says this “would create a whole new bubble” of immigration — 30 million relatives of the 12 million. She believes our military is stretched too thin as it is, and that it is not a good idea to send members of the military to the border. She opposes the building of a fence along the border, and instead favors a “smart fence” which would use radar technology to detect illegal border crossings.

As the host and co-moderator of the radio debate, I had the added advantage of being able to visually observe each candidate, decipher their composure and evaluate them as people beyond the sound-bites of politics. Mrs. Busby had an interesting demeanor about herself. Throughout the entire debate she maintained an expressionless “deer in the headlight” stare. Not because she was frightened or confused, far from it she is a bright person, but because she seemed to be reciting answers from a scripted playbook. Contrast this to Mr. Bilbray, who expressed himself with a calm self-assuredness that typically comes from having personal knowledge and experience from previously working the floors of Congress.

Polling suggests that the race may be tight, while history says that Democrats peak at about 44 percent in this district — Bill Clinton, Al Gore and John Kerry each received 45 percent, 43 percent and 44 percent, respectively, in 1996, 2000 and 2004.

In any race this tight there is always more campaigning to be done, and this is no different. However, my best assessment is that Mr. Bilbray will win this thing. He has picked up several important endorsements, including The San Diego Union-Tribune and Mayor Jerry Sanders. Historically he has been a masterful vote-getter, having defeated three incumbents in his career, plus defeating a wealthy businessman who wildly outspent him — despite Bilbray running very few radio or TV ads- in the April special election. Conversely, local Democrats often privately complain to me that Mrs. Busby “looks too matronly.” One of the keys to the election could be Republican voter turnout.

The stakes are high here. Not only will this election possibly determine which party takes control over the House, but it may also determine the future course and costs for America on everything, including education, health care, government budgets, employment, and countless other areas.

The even-higher stakes: How the election in California’s 50th drives the national “template” for campaign platforms, talking points and fundraising — something Karl Rove and Howard Dean will microscope over the next two weeks.

Rick Amato is a radio talk-show host and political commentator.

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