Republican stronghold in California at risk as environmentalists go on the attack

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The Independent US

In a year of unpopular Republican incumbents, perhaps no congressman is more reviled than Richard Pombo of California.

Environmentalists loathe him because, as chair of the House Resources Committee, he advocated selling off one quarter of the country's national parks and pushed for oil and gas drilling in the Alaskan wilderness and the Pacific Ocean. The media has been gunning for him because he took money from the disgraced Republican Party lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Republicans in his district have been made queasy by his deals with developers, who have increased the value of his family-held landholdings while contributing to his political campaign fund.

He has put family members on his congressional payroll at salaries so high that two years ago they outstripped the entire campaign budget of his Democratic Party challenger. And now he is pushing to build a freeway which would require the state to purchase land from his family at a premium rate.

In the words of the Sacramento Bee newspaper, Mr Pombo is "the diseased heart of the quid-pro-quo process that defines Washington today" - one of the reasons Congress has only a 16 per cent approval rating. But his defeat in next week's mid-term elections is far from certain. If anything, the odds still favour him.

As a seven-term incumbent and the scion of a prominent local ranching family, Mr Pombo has name recognition galore: this part of the state is frequently referred to as "Pombo country". Thanks to the largesse of construction companies, Indian gambling interests, oil companies, mining companies and agricultural business giants, he holds a three-to-one fund-raising advantage over his Democratic opponent, Jerry McNerney.

Most significantly, the boundaries of his district have been drawn, with the complicity of both parties, in such a way as to make him well-nigh unassailable. The map of his district, California's 11th, twists and turns from the outer suburbs of the San Francisco area, dodging pockets of heavy Democratic support, to the far side of the Central Valley, the state's agricultural bread basket. Two years ago, the Democrats regarded Mr Pombo's seat as so safe they didn't bother to run a candidate against him. That was before Mr McNerney's son, Michael, put his father's name forward as a write-in candidate. Michael had joined the air force in response to the September 11 attacks, and didn't feel he was fighting for his country just so people such as Mr Pombo could have a free pass.

Mr McNerney was the opposite of Mr Pombo, an environmental scientist with his own wind-power company. He was also a political neophyte, with no heavy-hitting backing. In 2004 he lost by 22 percentage points.

This year, though, has been a different story. First, McNerney ran away with the Democratic primary, even though the party endorsed one of his rivals. And now, by focusing on a handful of crucial issues - the war in Iraq, veterans' benefits, air and water quality in the Central Valley and Mr Pombo's ethical record - he is neck-and-neck with Mr Pombo.

"The mood of the country is very different from 2004," Mr McNerney said in an interview. "The Republican leadership including Pombo made themselves a comfortable bed, but now they are having to sleep in it. They've used fear to divide the country, they've started a war of aggression, and they're trying to scare us about illegal immigrants."

Mr McNerney's campaign has run on grassroots energy alone, raising about $2m (£1m). Volunteers have come from all over California to knock on doors and win over supporters.

The national Democratic Party, meanwhile, has been almost entirely absent. At first, the party leadership wrote off the race as unwinnable. Then, as the number of competitive races started climbing, the Democrats found themselves in a cash crunch - unable to throw money at all the races coming into play. Last week, the national party finally came up with $100,000 for television adverts.

"We welcome the participation of the national party with open arms," Mr McNerney said. (Some of his volunteers express the same sentiment, less diplomatically, by asking: "Where the hell have they been?")

Around the district, the anti-incumbent mood is palpable. Pombo lawn signs are a rarity. One registered Republican, Richard Petersen of Stockton, said Mr Pombo had become "a bad word to be associated with". Disaffected Republicans such as Mr Petersen are as ubiquitous as low-lying plums at harvest time, and not all of them are as polite. "I ain't voting for that son-of-a-bitch," one of his neighbours said. "He's for Pombo now, not the people. He's a crook."

If the race were not stacked in Mr Pombo's favour, it would look like a rout by now. The incumbent has let weeks go by without a public appearance, ignores the media, has few volunteers working on his behalf, and is relying on mailers and television adverts trashing his opponent as a flip-flopper who would molly-coddle terrorists and raise taxes.

His opponents call this "the arrogance of incumbency". But this arrogance may turn out to be warranted. This is Republican territory, and Mr McNerney has struggled to forge a message with cross-party appeal.

Will that be enough? The turning point, ironically, may have come a few weeks ago when President George Bush came to campaign for Mr Pombo. The White House initially claimed to have raised $400,000 in a single night, but campaign records suggest that claim was exaggerated. On top of that, Mr Bush's visit finally woke up the Democratic Party to the idea that Mr McNerney had a chance.

"They raised my name recognition no end," Mr McNerney joked last weekend. "I tried to thank them for that, but they don't take my calls."

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