Young Hunter Is Favored to Win Race

Young Hunter Is Favored to Win Race

Posted May 20, 2008 at 6:34pm

Marine Reservist Duncan D. Hunter is poised to win the GOP primary in California’s 52nd district, and polling shows he’ll largely have his father to thank if he does come out on top in the June 3 contest.

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R), retiring from the solidly conservative 52nd district upon the conclusion of his current term after an unsuccessful presidential bid, remains immensely popular at home, and his son looks to benefit. The younger Hunter is running in a four-way primary to replace the 14-term Congressman as the GOP standard-bearer in the San Diego-area district, and observers of the race are already calling it.

“It’s over,” said Republican strategist Duane Dichiara, whose San Diego-based firm, Coronado Communications, consulted for a candidate who exited the race after determining that Hunter was too formidable to beat.

“His father was and is a very popular Congressman out there because he fits the district like a glove,” Dichiara continued. “Duncan Hunter is a very popular candidate because he’s very similar to his father.”

A poll conducted May 8-10 showed Hunter with the support of 79 percent of likely Republican primary voters, followed by 6 percent for Santee Councilman Brian Jones, 2 percent for San Diego County Board of Education President Bob Watkins and 2 percent for Army Officer Rick Powell. Watkins has been considered the younger Hunter’s most formidable opponent.

Of those polled, three-quarters said they were aware that Hunter is the son of the Congressman. The survey of 400 likely GOP primary voters was conducted for a San Diego-area Indian tribe, and had an error margin of 4.9 points.

Hunter’s chief strategist, Dave Gilliard, said the campaign’s internal polling generally mirrored the findings of the tribe’s poll. Gilliard said the campaign purposely set out to inform voters of Hunter’s lineage, to protect the candidate from charges of deceptive nepotism down the stretch of the campaign.

“We were happy to have the name ID, but didn’t try and fool anybody into thinking that Congressman Hunter was running for re- election,” Gilliard said.

Watkins, a wealthy businessman, takes issue with Gilliard’s assessment of the race.

Watkins acknowledged in a telephone interview Tuesday that he’ll have to come from behind to win the primary. But he said his campaign’s internal polling tells a different story.

In a survey Watkins said was conducted in late April, he trailed Hunter 48 percent to 22 percent. Significantly, Watkins explained, that support flipped to 58 percent for him and 38 percent for Hunter once voters learned that the Hunter being polled was not the Congressman, but rather his son.

Gilliard said he’s been worried that Watkins would unleash his personal fortune into the race in the form of a heavy television buy. But with less than two weeks to go until Election Day, Watkins indicated that such a barrage was not forthcoming.

Watkins has been advertising on the radio, while depending on direct mail to drive his message. He said he’ll have dropped approximately five direct-mail pieces by June 3. Gilliard said the Hunter campaign has been on the radio since late April and will stay up through Election Day, while also relying heavily on direct mail.

“I always believe that you’re behind until you finish first,” Watkins said. “The object is to keep working every day.”

The issues most discussed in the primary campaign, according to both Gilliard and Watkins, have been illegal immigration and the war on terrorism and national security, with Gilliard adding that the economy has been among the top three matters of interest to voters.

Hunter, who first won his seat in 1980 with 53 percent of the vote, has been re-elected with no less than 64 percent of the vote 13 times, save for 1992, when he again garnered 53 percent.

President Bush won the district in 2004 with 61 percent, and even with Democratic gains in enrolled voters throughout California over the past couple of years, the GOP still holds a nearly 14-point lead in voter registration. Republicans say independents are the fastest growing group of voters in the district, and that they tend to be conservative.

Gilliard said the voters in the 52nd district are unhappy with Congress and the Bush administration. That unhappiness does not extend to Congressman Hunter, and voters have been very receptive to the younger Hunter’s message.

There is no indication that the 52nd district will be fertile ground for the Democrats in the general election. But Gilliard said the uncertain political environment and the possibility of depressed Republican turnout in the fall is something he is monitoring.

Saying he wasn’t taking anything for granted, Gilliard also suggested that Democrats might offer Hunter some form of competition if they nominate retired Navy Officer Mike Lumpkin. The outcome of the 52nd district Democratic primary, featuring Lumpkin and teacher Vickie Butcher, remains unclear.

“I think overall Republicans are facing some turnout challenges in November, and I think that’s something that we all have to watch,” Gilliard said.