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All eyes on 50th District Congressional race


The most watched race in the election - one week from today -- is the contest to replace convicted Congressman Randy Duke Cunningham in the 50th District.

The national Democratic and Republican parties see it as a key race - evidenced by their heavy fundraising and advertising. Republican candidate Brian Bilbray was expected to be a shoo-in with his Washington experience as a Congressman and lobbyist. But Democrat Francine Busby, a former school board member, is attracting voters who wonder if political experience is more liability than asset. KPBS reporter Alison St John has more.

The scandal over Cunningham's bribery conviction has shaken the republican leaning north county district to its core, and this election is seen as a referendum that could have repercussions across the country in November.

Janice Marshall was so affected by stories of corruption in Washington and the conviction of her own congressman that she switched parties. She now works for democrat Francine Busby.

MARSHALL: "I'm a former republican, I was so angry and I had nowhere to put my anger I think the reason she struck a note in me is the sincerity, I know I can trust her."

n the other hand, Dory Harlman of Solana Beach is sticking with the Republican Party, though she wrestled for a while over the decision to support Brian Bilbray.

HARLMAN: "My favorite candidate was sent to the slammer Cunningham.. so I was very disappointed. It's not going to prevent me from voting, but I guess I'm really thinking about the background of the candidates now, how did they vote before, who were they connected with, who's backing them."

Brian Bilbray represented a central San Diego congressional district for three terms before being unseated by Democrat Susan Davis in 2000. He argues that his seniority in the House will be a major asset.

BILBRAY: "Every elected mayor in this district has endorsed me because I can work with them help them in Washington to get the job done, you cant ask someone who's served in a small school district for 6 years to know what needs to be done and how to get it done."

LUNA: "It cuts both ways this past experience."

Political scientist Carl Luna of Mesa College.

LUNA: "Having been in office, yes he has experience, but also he has a record."

Luna points out the district's more conservative republicans don't like Bilbray's moderate record on social issues such as gun control and abortion, while moderate republicans don't appreciate his hard line on immigration issues.

And Bilbray himself is deliberately playing down his recent years as a DC lobbyist, for good reason - as the federal corruption investigations of Cunningham, Jack Abramoff and others have revealed the seamy underside of their cozy congressional relationships.

In fact, as a congressman, Bilbray and his wife took a New Year's eve trip to the Marianas Islands, part of a lobbying effort by Abramoff to block sweatshop reforms in that U.S. commonwealth. Bilbray downplays the connection and defends the travel.

BILBRAY: "Well it was paid for by the northern Marianas contrary to what people say the united states government subdivision, the American government paid for that and it was cleared ahead of time."

Invoices show the trip was paid by Abramoff, who was later reimbursed by the Mariana Islands Government - which gets most of its funding from U.S. taxpayers. The lobby effort was considered successful, by the way, as the sweatshop reforms went nowhere.

Democrat Francine Busby has very little baggage - because she has little experience. Busby, who looks for all the world like the lady next door, has served on the Cardiff school board and campaigned in two previous congressional elections against Cunningham. She is undaunted by the apparent imbalance of political experience between herself and Bilbray.

BUSBY: "You know He may have experience but he was also voted out of office, in fact I think it speaks a lot to the fact that people chose somebody else to replace him."

Busby points out that many candidates who run for congress, including several in the Republican primary, never held elected office before. She believes what's important in this race is that she offers herself as a candidate who will restore the voters' trust.

BUSBY: "Many people feel that their government is so big, so distant and so hard for them to touch that they've become hopeless that they have any say in it, and I think I will be the hope that there is democracy, that they can send a message for change."

While the candidates battle it out in what is turning out to be a close race, some wonder if the brutal multi-million dollars ad campaigns on TV will actually determine the outcome. They're sponsored by the Democratic and Republican Party Headquarters in Washington.

Political scientist Carl Luna says, in the final analysis, the race may not be about which is the best candidate.

LUNA: "This race is more about do you want the Republicans in power or not."

Luna feels Busby has not been the most charismatic candidate, but she'll safely carry the Democratic vote and an unknown number of disillusioned Republicans.

LUNA: "And if you vote for Francine Busby, you're voting more for a democrat, doesn't matter who the democrat is."

If party loyalties prevail, Luna says, the voters' doubts about their candidates' records will be set aside.

LUNA: "At the end of the day you hold your nose and you vote for your party candidate."

North County voters have a lot riding on their decision next Tuesday. Political observers around the nation are watching to see whether one of the worst corruption scandals in congressional history will have any affect on party loyalty, or on what kind of candidate voters chose to represent them in the halls of power. Alison St John, KPBS News.

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