Discerning the Primary Colors

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When voters go to the polls in eight states on Tuesday, pundits will go to work. From California, where Democrats will select a challenger to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, to Alabama, where voters are expected to overwhelmingly approve a referendum banning gay marriage, these election results will be scrutinzed by political observers for clues as to where the country is heading — and whether the Republicans will face trouble in this November's mid-term elections.

The greatest scrutiny will be of California's 50th congressional district, which is holding a special election to replace Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who pled guilty to bribery charges earlier this year. This is a solidly Republican district that Cunningham carried with more than 60% and President Bush carried by 11% in the last election. The mere fact that the Democratic challenger, Francine Busby, a school board member, has made the race competitive indicates the difficulties that Republicans could face in trying to retain control of the House this fall. The G.O.P. nominee, Brian Bilbray, is a former member of Congress (and a surfer) with a conservative pedigree that might normally be a good fit for this San Diego district. But he is now a lobbyist — and since Cunningham went to jail because of favors he took from Defense lobbyists, that is no longer the best calling card.

Busby's chances may have been hurt last weekend when she made comments to a predominently Hispanic audience that voters didn't need identity papers to vote. Republicans jumped on her remark, saying it indicated that she wanted illegals to vote, a charge Busby denies. But immigration remains a huge issue in this border region. Bilbray has aligned himself with House conservatives who are opposing the President's immigration reform plan, with its path to citizenship and guest worker program. In fact, Bilbray's adamant opposition to the bill led Sen. John McCain, one of the President's champions on immigration, to cancel a fundraising appearance with Bilbray. Both parties are pouring millions into the race, and Vice President Cheney has even been to the district to rally the faithful.

In an effort to keep Blbray's numbers down, Democrats are also touting the candidacy of conservative third-party candidate William Griffith, a self-styled Minuteman border guard and strong opponent of illegal immigration. Busby even placed ads on conservative radio that extol Griffith. Even if Busby doesn't win here, a strong showing in the district will be enough to make Republicans nervous over what it may bode for November.

Another race attracting national interest is Alabama's gubernatorial primary, where incumbent Republican Bob Riley faces ousted Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, who famously fought to keep the Ten Commandments displayed at his courthouse. Moore was once thought to pose a strong challenge, but he's proven to be a less than able campaigner. He recently drew ridicule for suggesting that mad cow disease was fake and denounced a state effort to track cattle as part of an effort to run private farms out of business. In Montana, two popular Democrats square off for the chance to take on beleaguered Sen. Conrad Burns, the Republican incumbent who has been caught up in the Jack Abramoff probe. The odds-on favorite is State Senate Leader John Tester, who has an hysterically funny ad up showing Montanans flocking to get Tester-style crew cuts.

One theme to watch on this primary day is the fate of some famous political heirs. In New Jersey, Tom Kean, Jr., the son of former Republican Governor and 9/11 Commission Co-Chairman Tom Kean, is expected to grab the GOP nomination for governor. In Alabama, the son of the late Gov. George C. Wallace will probably win the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor. And in Iowa, the leading Democrat in the state's gubernatorial primary is Secretary of State Chet Culver, son of the state's longtime senator Dick Culver. If he wins, Culver would face Republican Congressman Jim Nussle in the fall. The winner of that race could play an important role in the next Presidential election — as potential kingmaker in the state that holds the nation's first caucuses.