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Bilbray Plays It Cool in Midst of Tough California Race

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Port Commissioner Scott Peters (center) hopes to rebrand San Diego as a destination for young professionals. The mix of business, military and environmental interests creates a district where partisanship is a turnoff, both candidates in the race said.

SAN DIEGO — Here, in one of the most competitive House battlegrounds in the country, sit palm-tree-lined beach towns, military installations and a surf culture representative of the inseparable connection between the ocean and the area’s inhabitants. 

Reflective of this relaxed, Southern California lifestyle is Republican Rep. Brian Bilbray, a lifelong surfer who hops  on a longboard and catches waves in a recent television ad. Bilbray faces a stiff challenge from Port Commissioner Scott Peters (D) in a redrawn 52nd district more hospitable to the Democrats.

But if Bilbray is concerned about his status as a vulnerable incumbent, he’s not letting it show. During an interview Friday at his campaign headquarters on a typically temperate afternoon, Bilbray slouched in his chair and dismissed Democratic attacks against his record on clean water like he was just out of his wetsuit raving about some gnarly waves.

“I mean, I’m the best surfer in Congress, guy, come on,” the 61-year-old lawmaker said.

Bilbray, who returned for a second stint in Congress through a costly 2006 special election, is being challenged in a reconfigured district now more favorable to Democrats. He’s facing Peters, a well-funded challenger, in a district that President Barack Obama would have won by 12 points in 2008.

Outside money is pouring in, and both sides are confident, but neither party is showing its cards by releasing any recent internal polling. The only agreement is that the election will be close and that neither candidate wants to be tied too closely to his party in a district split nearly evenly between Republicans, Democrats and “decline to state” voters.

San Diego is also home to wireless technology and science research companies, and Peters hopes to rebrand the city as a destination for young professionals. The mix of business, military and environmental interests creates a district where partisanship is a turnoff, both candidates said.

“This is not a district where you put a ‘D’ or an ‘R’ next to your name and you win,” Peters, 54, said in an interview the same day.

“No one’s confusing me with Nancy Pelosi — who is a very accomplished person. I didn’t mean any criticism,” he said, referencing the House Minority Leader from California. “But people know that I am pragmatic and not the most political person.”

Bilbray had a nearly identical take on himself, citing his background as a nonpartisan Imperial Beach city councilman and mayor, followed by 10 years as a San Diego County supervisor.

“It drives them crazy when they see that my ads have me surfing — because their stereotype doesn’t stick on this one,” Bilbray said. “They grab their Washington stereotype, come out thinking they’re running against the John Culbersons or the typical Republican, and I don’t fit their mold, so it’s kind of hard for them to hit the target.”

Republican Rep. John Culberson serves a Houston-area district in Texas.

Peters is indeed painting Bilbray as one of the more partisan figures on Capitol Hill, usually in reference to Bilbray signing Grover Norquist’s pledge not to raise taxes. And the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has hammered Bilbray on television for spending the six-year break in his Congressional tenure as a lobbyist.

“I’ve been carpet-bombed before,” Bilbray said.

The San Diego airwaves are packed with punches in this race, but it’s going both ways. On this day, Norquist’s group, Americans for Tax Reform, announced it had purchased $1.6 million in television time on behalf of Bilbray. That’s on top of the more than $4 million in independent expenditures already logged by outside groups from both parties, with more to come. 

Peters called the ATR ad, which will be slamming the Democrat for the next two weeks on Medicare cuts, further verification that there is less hope for compromise with Bilbray in Congress. “You can’t party with the tea party and then claim you’re a moderate, and I think people are going to see that,” Peters said.

Bilbray and the National Republican Congressional Committee continue to tie Peters to the pension crisis San Diego found itself in a decade ago, when Peters was in his first term on the city council. And Bilbray is connecting the pension underfunding to the entitlement reform conversation on Capitol Hill.

“You send him to Washington when Social Security and Medicare is being threatened, I mean there’s no way for voters to go back and correct the mistake if it happens in Washington like it was able to do in the city,” Bilbray said.

Peters, who admits he made a mistake, also compared the situation with what’s happening in Congress. But he points to the city’s banning of pension underfunding, changing the pension system for new employees and continuing to work its way out of the hole.

“I know a lot of people there have to be scared about what’s coming,” Peters said of Capitol Hill. “But I think, in San Diego, we have a lot of lessons we can teach. You couldn’t say that in 2003, but you can say that today. That’s why he’s always pointing his finger back there to divert attention from Congress in 2012.”

Tom Shepard is a veteran Republican consultant now helping to run the San Diego mayoral campaign of Rep. Bob Filner (D). He ran all of Bilbray’s Congressional campaigns from 1994 to 2000 and both of Peters’ city council campaigns, he said.

“My sense is that it’s close right now, but that Peters probably has a slight edge,” Shepard said. “All the polling I’ve seen in the last month shows Obama up somewhere between 17 and 20 points in the city and probably slightly less in the Congressional district but still well ahead.”

Pension reform did not come up in any interaction Peters had over a 24-hour period during which Roll Call trailed the Democratic candidate as he campaigned around San Diego County, including a fundraiser, an early morning labor canvassing rally, door-knocking in Coronado with Rep. Susan Davis (D), a Duke alumni lunch and a small house party.

At a posh Mission Hills home, with a Fisker Karma — an electric luxury sports car — parked out front, Peters was joined at a fundraiser by three former challengers to Bilbray. Democrats Francine Busby, state Sen. Christine Kehoe and Davis, who went to Congress in 2000 by defeating Bilbray, mingled among a few dozen donors who munched on freshly hand-rolled sushi and sipped locally brewed beer.

“Scott’s work on the coastal commission reflects his environmental values, and he has a moderate, balanced approach to business,” Kehoe told Roll Call. Busby, who’s lost to Bilbray three times, including in the hard-fought 2006 special election, said Peters “has a great chance with this, and it’s all going to come down of course to the ‘decline to state’ voters.”

Peters’ stump speech highlights his work to improve a once-blighted area of downtown, which he and Davis took Roll Call on a tour of en route to Coronado on Saturday morning. They pointed out projects they worked on together, such as a pedestrian bridge, and remarked about what more can be done.

“Sometimes I just have to pinch myself,” Davis said while cruising by
topography-defined neighborhoods on the way downtown. “This is San Diego, and it is so cool.”

At a meet and greet that afternoon in Poway, a Republican-leaning city outside San Diego, Peters spoke with about 14 independents and Democrats likely to support him. Peters said he sometimes attends three of these a day. Some attendees handed over checks, and Peters asked all of them to get the word out about the campaign. 

During his 15-minute speech, which was followed by a half-hour of questions, Peters highlighted another accomplishment he touts often — the completion of Highway 56. “It was the highway without a middle for a long time,” he said. “It doesn’t work as well without a middle.” 

One supporter chimed in: “Sounds like politics.”

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