Friday, June 9, 2006 | At 8:45 p.m. on Tuesday June 6, a boringly baroque wood-paneled box on the third floor of the Westgate hotel called the Ambassador room bulged in anticipation of the arrival of two late essentials: its candidate, and his poll results.

The absentee returns that came out shortly after the polls closed at 8 p.m. showed Brian Bilbray ahead of his rival Francine Busby by seven points, which sent a sigh of relief through the few members of the “Bilbray Brigade” already gathered at what was to be his Election Night party. But absentee voters tend to be Republican, and so Bilbray’s campaign manager wore stubbornly straight lips three quarters of an hour later as he fruitlessly tapped refresh on a laptop set to the Registrar of Voters’ results site.

Around him, the stuffy Ambassador room throbbed with reporters, photographers (bearing titanic, quick-whirling cameras) and tentatively smiling, wine-sipping supporters. The sprinkling of CNN and The New York Times press passes among the clump of media hinted at the inordinately large number of eyes focused on the race to fill Duke Cunningham’s old seat in Congress, a weight that seemed to press harder upon the hot little box with each “ding!” of the arriving elevators. Every 15 seconds, one of the mob would approach a nervous-looking campaign staff member and ask one of two questions: “Any new results in?” and “When’s Brian gonna get here?”

But since “no” and “soon” aren’t particularly satisfying answers, 8:45 p.m. was a tense strike of the clock, as were the 10 or so more that passed before the candidate’s lean face appeared in the doorway among a throng of handlers, reporters and friends. As it did, the half-circle of media sprang shut around him like a venus fly trap. Bilbray made it about seven steps into the room before arriving at his wife, kissing her in the flat, white flashes, and the forward progress of his entrance was over: He had stopped to answer a question.

It took over half an hour of continuous, floodlit interrogation before the buzz of Bilbray’s entrance had worn the reporters and cameramen out of questions, despite the fact that nearly all of them reprised the same three issues: “How nervous are you? How do you feel about Busby and the negative campaigning, especially the independent ads on your behalf? And tell us again about your no-amnesty immigration beliefs!”

It was immediately clear that Bilbray was as skilled at this masquerade as his interrogators, as his answers slid with perfect elegance from unsavory topics to effective ones with singeing frankness. Some examples of his graceful choreography:

On Cunningham: “I think a lot of people talk about a scandal being one person doing the wrong thing, but I think one of the biggest scandals we have is 11 or 12 million illegal immigrants in this country while Washington is not doing the right thing.”

On being nervous: “If it was just about me I wouldn’t have been that nervous, but I really do believe in this issue [illegal immigration]. Even if you disagree with me, you gotta admit, the guy’s not blowing smoke.”

On the independent negative ads against Busby: “I don’t think [they] helped that much, in fact I think [they] might have hurt me. The biggest problem I had was independent ads.”

On the race’s national attention: “It’s easy to be center stage when it’s the only show in town…People are forgetting that this isn’t about who controls the House or the Senate, it’s about who represents the 50th district.”

On how it feels to be here tonight: “I kind of feel like the last scene in the Rocky movie. They’ve thrown everything but the kitchen sink at me – they even threw my mother at me.”

Even after the initial bombardment had concluded, no poll results had arrived to ease the minds of Bilbray’s frazzled campaign staff. They were left to mount the ground assault on Golden Hall – where still more TV cameras and grilling waited – with only the absentee results to ease their burden.

Descending into that stark auditorium from the plush, paneled setting of the Westgate felt like arriving on the island of “Where the Wild Things Are”: packs of fevered supporters for many other candidates – some of them Democrats! – set off frantic charges from the lobby, bearing campaign signs as their colors and thunderous chants and applause as their swords. Settled along the perimeter of the room were the TV platforms, with elaborate staging and gleaming plasma-screens, which would intermittently elevate candidates to ask the usual questions, although they got pointed later as more significant results began to arrive.

For Bilbray’s supporters, the requisite stint at Golden Hall meant the tired throat and aching arms that come from holding a giant sign over your head for hours while cheering for the cameras – the pain of which was probably eased as early precinct results showed Bilbray hanging on to his lead. But the group’s presence in the fray was as over as quickly as it began; As soon as his date with live television had been fulfilled, the Bilbray Brigade retreated back to their lair in the Westgate…

…For more flirting with live television. Eleven o’clock rolled around with 35 percent of the precincts reporting, which meant Bilbray’s statement for the evening news would be a cheerful one – although the candidate was hesitant to say anything too definite about winning. The presence of actual results refilled the question queue, morphing once-tame reporters into a mob of sharks that snapped at each other according to the different needs of their medium. The TV guys had mapped out the shots they wanted with gaff tape, but the still photographers surged in their way with high flashes and brusque attitudes – while we print folks hung back, smugly enjoying the fact of the relative ease of our task.

At 11:15 p.m., the stiff back-pats and congratulatory handshakes began – and so did the partying. The next three hours passed in a blur of sluggish (but safe) poll results and rising chuckles from Bilbray and his cadre, who were gathered on the deck outside the Ambassador room amid a cluster of the Westgate’s cutely petite cocktail glasses. The soon-to-be Congressman only seemed to get more limber and energetic as the night wore on, while some of his campaign members intermittently snoozed through their celebration, too tired and disbelieving to let the imminent victory set in. The top-level campaign advisors went carpe diem, although they too confessed difficulties relaxing into their victory, which was still solid as the precincts reporting climbed to above fifty percent.

The Ambassador room was nearly empty at 2 a.m. when, with 90 percent of the precincts reporting, Bilbray formally announced victory while sporting his Border Patrol ball-cap.

“I think that we’re going back to Washington,” he hollered to the roaring supporters and staffers that remained. “And I think the message is, to the president, that friends don’t let friends give amnesty!”

After six hours, the nation had got its answer. In a district where registered Republicans hold a 30 percent margin over registered Democrats, the Republican candidate held on to his party’s seat by five percent. The Ambassador room had devolved from a crowd of cufflinks and cocktails to a fraternity of ball-caps and Bud Light, with the returning Congressman and his boys telling old fishing and war stories as a fresh mist fell from the city-lit haze outside.

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