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Monday, Aug. 21, 2006 | It might qualify her as a masochist, but Francine Busby is actually looking forward to her November rematch with Rep. Brian Bilbray.

The pair faced off just two months ago in a brutal, high-profile battle to replace the disgraced Randy “Duke” Cunningham as the representative for the 50th Congressional District. A novice Democrat running in a long-time Republican stronghold, Busby was given little chance of winning. Still, it seemed, if ever a Democrat was going to capture the 50th, it would be then. The Cunningham and other Republican scandals festered, moderate and conservative Republicans feuded over the party nomination and troubles in Iraq continued.

The Democratic Party smelled blood, spending millions on the special election during a normally dormant political season. As Election Day neared, it seemed that the stars had uniquely aligned in Busby’s favor. When the dust settled, Bilbray won with 49 percent of the vote to Busby’s 45 percent. And Busby – dubbed a second-rate candidate by many – was left to ponder the remnants of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

But months later, Busby is back. She’s facing the same opponent in the same Republican district. The pundits don’t give her much of a chance, again. Cunningham’s demise is a distant memory; the Democratic Party is focusing its money and resources on other campaigns.

Yet Busby persists, quietly ramping up her campaign for a September kickoff.

“You can’t win if you don’t fight,” Busby said. “And I’m still fighting.”

The analysts and experts who have surveyed the 50th District’s political landscape – where Republicans have a hefty 14 point registration advantage over Democrats and Bilbray has the benefit of incumbency – give Busby even less of a chance than they did in June.

“Instead of climbing a mountain she has to climb a mountain range,” said Carl Luna, a professor of political science at San Diego Mesa College.

As they have in each of her races, political observers point toward past elections and dismiss Busby’s chances.

“The fundamental problem is that no Democrat in 40 years has won in California where the Republican registration advantage is over 4 percentage points,” said Gary Jacobson, a professor of political science at University of California, San Diego, who studies congressional elections.

Jacobson said he just can’t fathom how Busby can win this time around when she’s facing the same registration disadvantage.

Ask Busby and she’ll say that like Democrats across the nation, she’s hoping to capitalize on the electorate’s increasingly negative view of President Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress.

“I think that Bilbray truly represents the Republican Party and leadership,” Busby said. “I am running against him and I am running against the status quo.”

While the Democrats may have momentum going into November, Nathan Gonzales, the political editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, a nonpartisan political newsletter that analyses congressional elections, doesn’t believe it will benefit Busby.

Gonzales said Busby’s two failed attempts to win the seat make her old news. He believes her support has topped out in the district, illustrated by the fact that in June Busby barely outperformed John Kerry’s showing in the 2004 presidential election. Most importantly, Gonzales said, the Democratic Party’s lack of interest in Busby’s campaign is a significant sign of how her own party views her chances in the 50th District.

“The special election was probably her best chance,” Gonzales said.

But it’s not like any of the odds makers ever gave Busby much of a chance of winning last time either. Her showing in June surpassed many expectations despite some admitted missteps. And while Bilbray said he’s more focused on governing than campaigning, Busby said she has reasons to be optimistic.

Formerly the sacrificial lamb offered up by Democrats to the politically untouchable Cunningham, Busby, Cardiff school board member and political novice, managed to capture nearly 45 percent of the vote in July. It wasn’t enough for a win, but she argues that it still wasn’t insignificant in a district forever written off as red.

Despite the registration disadvantage, Busby managed to raise her final vote tally by nearly 10 points from her 2004 race against Cunningham, something she thinks has helped transform the 50th from a ruby red “safe Republican” seat to one that’s bubble gum pink and only “likely Republican” according to The New York Times‘ analysis of the November elections.

Add to that a survey conducted by National Public Radio that ranks the 50th among the top 50 most competitive districts in the nation and you have the reason for Busby’s optimism. For her, it’s all evidence that the past two years that she’s spent campaigning are paying off.

But Gonzales said he doesn’t believe that the 50th District has changed significantly.

“This race continues to trend toward the Republicans – even more so since the June election,” Gonzales said. “Francine needs to convince her own party that she can win.”

While Busby still contends that her efforts have yielded dividends, she knows it’s unlikely that the Democratic Party, focused on higher profile and more winnable Congressional races, will significantly support her campaign. But that’s not an altogether bad thing, she said.

During the June campaign, party support and national attention helped Busby amass a war chest of nearly $3 million. Enormous ad buys made Busby’s face omnipresent on local television, garnering her near-universal name recognition and helping her compile a list of 16,000 individual campaign contributors.

Busby, who later admitted that she did not come off well in the television ads, said she won’t miss them. She blames the media blitz – both her own and her opponent’s – and the involvement of outsiders in the last election for distorting who she really is and leaving voters confused and disgusted on Election Day.

This election she has a much more modest fundraising goal of $350,000 and her campaign is eschewing television advertising as a “poisoned well.”

“I think that’s why clarity is really important this time,” she said.

Bilbray also isn’t as likely to benefit from nearly as much outside support as he did in the June election.

He hopes to raise $1 million in the coming months – closer to the nearly $1.7 million he raised for June – and plans to collaborate campaign efforts with other local Republican politicians running for state seats that overlap the 50th district, said a campaign spokeswoman.

Bilbray said he’s glad to be out of the national spotlight and looking forward to running a local race.

“Coming from the local government side of it, I’m much more comfortable,” he said adding that he doesn’t think the campaign will become a negative one.

But given the bad blood established during the last campaign and the tone of the current rhetoric that may be wishful thinking.

In the wake of Cunningham’s demise, Busby ran on a government reform platform but, like many Democrats across the nation, is changing her message. The “culture of corruption” message has morphed into one of a “culture of destruction,” which focuses on the record of President Bush and the Republican controlled Congress.

“We have got to reform Congress, we have to restore ethics, we have to break the cycle – the bond between lobbyists and the members of Congress,” Busby said. “But rather than talking about that, I’ll be talking about the failed policies that are the result of that.”

As examples, Busby points to increasing energy costs, global warming, the need for renewable energy, the rising costs of healthcare and the Bush administration’s education policy, No Child Left Behind.

“These are all issues that nobody sees anybody addressing on a level that really makes sense to them,” she said. “They’re not seeing government in Washington working in their best interests and they are feeling the effects of that now.”

Busby said she plans to unleash an army of supporters on the district and run a “neighbor to neighbor” campaign focusing on those issues.

In the meantime, Bilbray said he’ll spend most of September working on Capitol Hill to “make sure that the people of the 50th get their fair share of representation in Washington, something that we have done without for too long.” He said he wants his campaign to focus on immigration and local issues when he returns.

“Just by doing a good job is the best way to get reelected,” he said. “I think that the more we focus on the local impact rather than what’s going on in Washington the better it is.”

But his big issue is one of Washington’s biggest: immigration. He ranks it as a major concern among voters and plans to make the basis of his platform.

“I think that the big challenge is still that Washington has not done what it needs to do to stop illegal immigration,” he said.

Bilbray wants to focus on homeland security and healthcare issues, which he considers interrelated to immigration. He’ll also trumpet his involvement in the recent transfer of the Mount Soledad Cross to federal property.

While the candidates might retread the same ideological ground they covered in the last election, Busby and everyone else involved – from the pundits to the Bilbray campaign – know that the race will hinge on her ability to make a case against Bilbray.

“She will have to convince some Republicans to fire Bilbray and hire her,” said Gonzales.

Busby believes her opponent has already provided her with a heap of ammunition during his two months in Congress.

On his first day in office Bilbray voted against a motion that could have prevented him from getting a pay raise, and he later voted to lift a federal ban on oil drilling and natural gas exploration in waters beyond 50 miles of U.S. coastline.

Busby will also likely take aim at Bilbray’s votes to cancel funding for a law requiring that trigger locks be sold with new handguns and to oppose a ban on giving federal contracts to companies that incorporate using offshore tax shelters.

“All I need to do is contrast my positions with Mr. Bilbray’s because I believe that my positions are truly reflective of the values of the people in this district,” Busby said.

Bilbray called those votes “tasty morsels” that the Busby campaign had dug out of larger legislation in an attempt to manufacture issues.

“This is the silliness of election year politics, with people trying to grab for straws, to use anything they can, to try to figure out how to try to tear somebody down,” Bilbray said. “The big difference is that she’s never been there, she’s never voted on these issues and she really has no record … I think come election time people will be looking for somebody who’s done more than just complain about the process.”

While it will most certainly get ugly, the race for the 50th District’s seat in the House could take an unexpected turn before Election Day. This Friday a Superior Court Judge is scheduled to hear a case brought by activists challenging the legitimacy of the June vote.

The plaintiffs have asked the judge to order a recount of the ballots or to nullify the election.

Please contact Daniel Strumpf directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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