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Voters head to polls for 50th Congressional District race

San Diego voters living in the 50TH Congressional district vote today on who will complete the unfinished term of convicted congressman Randy Duke Cunningham.

It's a crowded field with 18 candidates, but after a short and expensive campaign season, polls suggest only three candidates remain as viable winners. The outcome could still be a surprise. KPBS reporter Alison St John has more.

The 50th congressional district stretches from Carlsbad, south through Encinitas to part of La Jolla, and spreads east to San Marcos and Escondido. Most voters are still somewhat daunted by the number of candidate taking advantage of Cunningham's fall from grace to run for office. This Carmel Valley voter says he considered the 14 republicans in the race, and took the safest course of action.

Howard: "I ended up voting for Bilbray cause I remembered I knew his name that's all. There's so many people I din know what to do so I thought I'd vote, so then I wouldn't have to think about it any more cos I couldn't figure it out .. too many people."

Brian Bilbray is by far the best known candidate. He served three terms in a neighboring congressional district and positions himself as a mainstream republican focusing on the key republican issues.

BILBRAY: "My priority in congress will be fighting illegal immigration, we also need to get the federal budget under control."

Bilbray has one handicap in the race, and it's a big one, considering the reason the seat is open is because former Congressman Cunningham was sentenced to prison for accepting millions in bribes from lobbyists.

Since leaving Congress in 2001, Bilbray has been a registered lobbyist, though he fought a legal battle to win the right to call himself an immigration reform consultant on the election ballot. At a recent forum, Bilbray defended his record for transparency.

BILBRAY: "As somebody who has disclosed everything he has earned and owned since he was 24 years old.. though my first report was a surf board, two skateboards and a motorcycle."

Bilbray faces two other seasoned politicians in the race: conservative republican state assemblyman Bill Morrow and former assemblyman Howard Kaloogian. But Morrow has made little effort to campaign, conceding the conservative base to Kaloogian, who left the Assembly in 2000.

KALOOGIAN: "I never actually did go away, I started something called the recall Grey Davis committee and we had some success with that and then I started Move America forward in order to support our troops and their mission in fighting terror."

But for voters like this Rancho Santa Fe resident, who is thoroughly disgusted with Cunningham's corruption scandal, none of the familiar political names will do.

NELSON: "I will not vote for any professional politicians or lobbyists, I don't want that, they've learned too many bad habits. I want someone fresh and new in there."

Twelve of the candidates, including three millionaires, have never held political office before and to fit that bill. The one to watch, Eric Roach has spent the most of his own money - around $2 million - and is ahead of the rest of the pack. Roach has become a familiar face on San Diego TV commercials.

ROACH: "And so I am making you this pledge to never accept any money from Pacs, lobbyists or special interest to level the playing field for every citizen, and I ma the only candidate to make this pledge."

Voters appear to like this message: Roach's position in the polls is threatening Bilbray's lead among the Republican candidates.

There is only one serious democratic candidate in the race, Francine Busby, and that's made it easy for registered democrats like this Encinitas voter.
ROBERT: "I have my mind set, I've had my eye on one in particular and she seems to me the one that I would vote for and I haven't really paid too much attention to the others."

Busby is trying to break the republican grip on the district by using Cunningham's conviction for all its worth and attacking the corrupt establishment in Congress.

BUSBY: "It's broken, is anybody else out there concerned that we're being sold out."

Busby, a Cardiff school board member, talks more about health and education than the other candidates, and appeals to the voters' fears of being left out of decisions in Washington.

BUSBY: "When they wrote the Medicare bill, instead of sating what do seniors need- something simple, secure, cost effective, no instead they said what do the pharmaceuticals need? and the energy bill wasn't written for us, it was written for oil companies."

Busby has raised over a million dollars for her campaign and is well ahead of all other candidates in the polls. She has proved to be enough of a threat to this supposedly safe republican seat to prompt the national Republican Party to target her with last minute attack ads.

But in a district with 44 percent registered Republicans, and 30 percent registered democrats, political science professor Carl Luna of Mesa College says Busby's chances of winning more than 50 percent of the vote tomorrow are slim.

LUNA: "If the Democrats had the chance to pick off an otherwise safe republican seat, the 50th would be it, you've got scandal, you're got a fractured field of republicans running to replace Randy Duke Cunningham. - The problem is you run right into Gerry Mandering and that district is so solidly republican it would be night on short of miraculous if Busby actually can pull out a majority.

In this special election, any candidate who gets more than 50 percent would win the race outright and complete Cunningham's term to the end of this year. But the more likely scenario is a June run off, in which Francine Busby will face either the old hand, Brian Bilbray or the new man, Eric Roach.

The story wont end there though whoever wins in June has to go through the whole routine again for the full two year term that starts next year. The very day the first race is decided, the runners in the second race will line up for November. Alison St John, KPBS News.

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