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Most California congressional candidates decline convention invitation

Published: Monday, Sep. 3, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Sep. 4, 2012 - 6:25 am

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Hundreds of California Democrats are in Charlotte this week to watch President Barack Obama officially accept his party's presidential nomination.

Democratic congressional candidate Ami Bera isn't one of them.

"It's not going to help us win the election," the Elk Grove doctor said of spending a week away from the 7th Congressional District, where he is locked in a tight race with Republican Rep. Dan Lungren.

Almost all of the candidates running in competitive California congressional races decided to skip the national political conventions this year, citing a need to focus on the campaigns and other duties back home.

Consultants say that's a smart move.

"If you're in a competitive or a hot race for November, I think it's probably a big waste of time because it's taking you away from where the voters are," GOP strategist Dave Gilliard said.

Many campaigns say timing was an especially significant factor in the decision this year. The quadrennial nominating conventions were scheduled for the weeks before and after Labor Day weekend, a traditional point for campaigns to launch the final sprint to November.

Even though there's much to be done on the ground in the campaigns, however, analysts say the decision is probably also partly political. Spending three or four days celebrating the party and candidates at the top of the ticket can give opponents fodder for attacks that could sway swing voters in close races.

"Let's face it, if you are a sitting member of Congress – Democrat or Republican – and you are in a swing seat, almost by definition it is better for you to look detached from your national party," said Democratic political consultant Garry South. "One of the ways to do that is to say, 'I wasn't even there, I didn't even hear Mitt Romney give his speech. I wasn't there for Obama's speech, I was back here in the district talking to voters.' "

Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book, said candidates would be better off spending time "walking precincts with independents."

Lungren didn't join House GOP colleagues at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., either.

The congressman, who supported former House Speaker Newt Gingrich over Mitt Romney in the GOP primary, skipped the convention to focus on his campaign and visit his daughter in Southern California, his consultant said.

Rob Stutzman, who is advising Lungren and 3rd Congressional District candidate Kim Vann, another GOP no-show, said he recommended his candidates not "lose a week across the country."

"It's not a distancing thing, nor would I even allege that," he said.

Still, Republicans attacked Bera in his 2010 run against Lungren as a "clone" of then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – who will speak to California's delegation today – and sought to tie him to the federal health care law.

He planned this week to walk precincts, talk with supporters at house parties and fill a shift at a local medical clinic.

For his part, Bera's campaign ran Web ads during the Republican National Convention criticizing Lungren for supporting vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan and his House budget proposal, which includes tax cuts and changes to Medicare that Democrats are using against Republicans in races across the country.

Instead of watching the Democratic convention in person, Democratic Rep. Lois Capps of Santa Barbara is hosting a convention speech-viewing party with constituents in the 23rd Congressional District.

Her opponent, former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, spoke at the 2008 Republican National Convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul. But he too stayed home this year to campaign.

On Sunday, his daily campaign newsletter emphasized that elections "come down to real people facing real life problems. How are you going to pay for gas? How are you going to afford to keep your home? How do you reassure your son or daughter that opportunity is out there when they can't find a job after college?"

It wasn't just candidates who RSVPed "no."

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg is also staying home, focusing on campaigns in several targeted districts that will determine whether Senate Democrats secure a supermajority in the upper house that could allow them to raise taxes without Republican votes.

Gov. Jerry Brown, the state's top elected Democrat, is skipping Charlotte.

The party had expected him to attend as delegation chairman, but Brown is citing the hundreds of bills sent to him by the Legislature in the final weeks of session and the recent death of his father-in-law.

Californians still get to hear from national and state leaders at delegation breakfasts. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, the House majority whip, were among the speakers tapped for the GOP delegation events. The Democrats' speakers include U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein and Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to President Barack Obama.

For those who do go, conventions can offer a chance for ambitious up-and-comers to spend time with potential donors, party bigwigs and other Republicans or Democrats from the state.

South, who has been to five national Democratic conventions, said targeted candidates used to be expected to make a "command" performance at the party gatherings. But in addition to the partisan concerns, he said stories of glitzy parties and drinking can make the conventions "look like junkets."

"That's not a good image to be projecting back home," he said. "There are often bad stories that come out of these conventions that make it look like delegates are out all night and carousing and going to strip clubs and all that."

California's Democratic Party, fact, announced Sunday that two members of its delegation – whom it declined to name – arrived intoxicated at their hotel after over-imbibing on Saturday night. Paramedics took one to the hospital. The other was asked to leave the hotel and "forgo official delegation activities" after becoming confrontational with hotel staff.

Said South of candidates' absences: "I think it's a trend that you probably will see increase."

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Read more articles by Torey Van Oot

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