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Saturday, Nov. 4, 2006 | Sipping coffee outside a Starbucks in Encinitas on a recent morning, Sean Slentz said he’ll be crossing party lines on Election Day.

Slentz, a 32-year-old registered Republican, said he doesn’t think much of U.S. Rep. Brian Bilbray, his party’s nominee for Congress in the 50th District. Slentz plans to cast his vote for Francine Busby, a Democrat.

“I’d rather have somebody else in there,” Slentz said. “I’m like everyone else; I just don’t trust our government anymore.”

But Steve Chapin, 60, also a Republican, said he’ll be sticking with Bilbray because of the congressman’s stance on border issues. Then there’s Kathy Harris, 50, who hasn’t made up her mind yet. Harris, a Republican who lives in Clairemont, said she’s leaning toward Busby but she said she isn’t crazy about her.

“I definitely won’t vote for Bilbray,” Harris said adding that she’s heard Bilbray is being investigated, but wasn’t sure by whom.

It’s been weeks since the last public poll was released and neither congressional campaign has conducted private polling, their respective spokespeople said. Subsequently, the current disposition of voters in California’s 50th Congressional District remains unknown.

With just a few days left until next week’s midterm election, Bilbray and Busby are flying blind.

But informal conversations with 60 voters in four locations throughout the district last week revealed that the race appears close in most areas. Many of those interviewed in the district, which extends from Clairemont northward along the coast to Carlsbad and northwest to Escondido, cited immigration, a desire to change the balance of power in Congress and dislike for one or both of the candidates as deciding factors in their vote.

A number of Republicans said they’d be going against the grain and voting for Busby. Yet a small a small group of undecided voters remains and they’ll likely decide the outcome of the election.

Busby enjoys the majority of support among the potential voters who were perusing the produce at Henry’s Farmers Market in Clairemont on Thursday night, although a significant portion of shoppers said they have yet to reach a decision.

A registered Democrat who voted for Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003, Rhea Leptich, 49, is still undecided and said she’s looking to outside groups that share her values for advice.

“I normally vote by what the Sierra Club says” Leptich said. The Sierra Club has endorsed Busby.

But others, like Heather Goodmanson, 33, said they aren’t paying much attention to the race and are planning to vote along party lines.

“I think Busby is very liberal,” Goodmanson said. “I’m just a Republican at heart.”

Busby wouldn’t normally stand a chance in a district where Republican’s hold a 14 point registration advantage, but the most recent public poll, conducted in mid-October by KGTV, showed Bilbray with 49 percent of the vote and Busby on his heals with 46 percent. The gap between the candidates closed 14 points from a similar September poll and a one point from the June election to replace disgraced former Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham.

Busby owes her surge and the apparent closeness of the race to recent events.

Nationally, Republican morale has suffered as polls show voter dissatisfaction with Congress and President Bush over the war in Iraq and numerous political scandals. Democratic candidates throughout the country have continued to gain momentum and pundits say it appears likely they will retake control of the House and possibly the Senate.

Busby has picked up some momentum of her own in recent weeks, gaining some media attention after polling showed her closing in on her opponent. She also generated some coverage by alleging that Bilbray is being investigated by a criminal grand jury. The claims were bolstered last week when a Carlsbad neighbor of Bilbray’s mother announced that he was subpoenaed to testify about whether the congressman actually lives at the address where he is registered to vote.

Busby also launched several television ads, while Bilbray has run a very quiet campaign. But the National Republican Congressional Committee has spent approximately $200,000 on mailers to oppose Busby and campaign finance records show they’re set to launch television assault of their own in the race’s final days.

While both campaigns plan a last minute flurry in an effort to turn out supporters on Election Day, most voters have already made up their minds or voted via absentee ballot.

Support was evenly split between the candidates as potential voters hustled to beat the lunch hour rush along the tree-lined Grand Avenue in the heart of downtown Escondido on Thursday. Immigration is still a hot topic in this city, which has become the focus of fractious debate after its City Council proposed and approved legislation penalizing landlords who rent apartments to undocumented immigrants.

Bradley Kaskin said immigration was the biggest factor in his decision to vote for Bilbray. Kaskin, 69, said outside of a neighborhood deli that he’s not a big fan of the congressman, but doesn’t trust Busby because of a widely publicized statement she made earlier this year encouraging undocumented immigrants to help with her campaign.

“Bilbray is a professional politician and that worries me, but of the two he gets my vote,” Kaskin said.

But Bilbray’s hard-line stance on immigration issues doesn’t always swing support in his favor.

Heading to the bank with three kids in tow, Justine Hennessy, 49, said she’s still undecided but will probably vote for Busby. Hennessy said she’s followed the controversy over whether Bilbray actually lives in the district and thinks he’s posturing on immigration issues in Escondido, which she thinks were drummed up for the campaign season.

“I have some concerns that we are going to get another version of the last guy we had in the district in terms of honesty and integrity,” Hennessey said, referring to Cunningham.

While Busby may be too liberal for some, she enjoys ample support among the more moderate citizens of Encinitas. That’s evident among the people who congregated Tuesday morning at the coffee shops along Highway 101. Here, those questioned supported Busby by a hefty 5-to-1 margin. The support appears to be driven more by dissatisfaction with the status quo than a love for either candidate.

A 50-year-old Libertarian, Kevin Burke took a break from reading a novel outside a Starbucks to say that he’s not really sure what Busby stands for, but he’s voting for her because he’s looking for balance in Washington.

Clair Kohler, 65, said she’s also voting for Busby because she hopes that the Democrats regain control of Congress.

“That was a factor in my vote,” she said. “I don’t know if I would have voted for her if I had another choice who was a Democrat.”

While Busby may seem to have the coastal Encinitas all locked up, the situation changes dramatically just a mile inland. In the parking lot of a Stater Bros. grocery store adjacent to the tony neighborhoods of La Costa and Olivenhain, residents surveyed favor Bilbray, but only by a hair.

Loading her groceries into her car, Melissa Crimson, 34, said she plans to vote for Bilbray because of his stance on illegal immigration. The Republican-funded attacks on Busby seem to have paid off in Crimson’s case.

“With Busby … there was so much negative campaigning against her I don’t know what she stands for,” she said.

Don Clark, 49, is a Republican but said recent scandals in Washington have left him disappointed with both parties. Clark said he’ll be holding his nose when he votes for Bilbray.

A small business owner, Jennifer McVey, 37, still doesn’t know who she’ll support. McVey said she’s leaning toward supporting the Democrats, including Busby, even though she’s a Republican.

“I’m not happy with the way things are going,” McVey said, adding that she’s concerned about the war and education. “Our focus needs to be back here at home.”

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

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