Dan Walters: Dan Lungren fights for his political life

dwalters@sacbee.comSeptember 26, 2012 

Two decades ago, Dan Lungren was widely considered to be an ascending political star with White House-level potential.

Today, he's fighting for his political life, thus demonstrating just how capricious the public realm can be.

Lungren has spent nearly two decades in Congress – one stint from Long Beach in the 1980s, the current one from the Sacramento suburbs – and as California's Republican attorney general in the 1990s was a potential vice presidential running mate and/or the odds-on favorite to become the state's governor.

It didn't happen. Lungren had his shot at the governorship in 1998, but the state's changing political ambiance and an inept campaign left him a landslide loser to Democrat Gray Davis, a lackluster political poseur who was recalled by voters five years later.

Lungren licked his self- inflicted wounds in private life for a few years and then ran for Congress in 2004 from a district in Sacramento's suburbs and nearby foothills. At one point, his chances looked dim, but his two rivals for the GOP nomination concentrated their fire on each other, and Lungren slipped into the seat. However, it hasn't been a comfortable fit.

Democratic registration gains ate into Lungren's Republican voter advantage and gave Ami Bera, a physician with strong financing from fellow Indian Americans, a shot at unseating him in 2010.

Lungren survived Bera's challenge, albeit with barely 50 percent of the vote, but Bera's back this year in the much reconfigured, more suburban 7th Congressional District, where Democratic voters fractionally outnumber Republicans.

Democrats need a 25-seat gain this year to recapture Congress. With California's districts shaken up by an independent commission's map-making, a number of the state's seats are being contested.

Lungren appears to be its most embattled Republican incumbent, so he and Bera are both getting heavy support from party and interest-group funds.

At the moment, it looks like a tossup, which is why a televised debate between Lungren and Bera on Tuesday loomed large, potentially giving either man momentum to pull away.

Neither scored a knockdown, much less a knockout, during the hourlong debate, although Lungren's decades-long experience as a political debater was evident as they touched on virtually every national issue, from health care to Iran.

Interestingly, neither was as aggressive as their television ads in attacking the other as an out-of-touch extremist.

Both, in fact, came across as somewhat moderate, which is a clue. With party registrations virtually equal, the nearly 20 percent of district voters who are independents are the key factor.

While red meat TV ads and mailers motivate the partisan bases, the candidates themselves are appealing to moderate independents.

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