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California voters to decide Condit's fate, governor's foe in Tuesday primary

(SAN FRANCISCO) - As California's primary rapidly approaches, Rep. Gary Condit faces the toughest election of his crumbled political career and Republicans wage a sharp battle for the right to take on Democratic Gov. Gray Davis.

Tuesday's primary comes after a year of turmoil featuring a sex scandal involving a missing intern, a crippling energy crisis and multibillion-dollar budget troubles.

Besides determining Condit's future and Davis' opponent, voters also will determine if Congress will have its first sister act and if the state will revise its 12-year-old term-limits law.

In Condit's district, once so supportive it was called Condit Country, the 13-year House veteran faces his toughest challenge from Assemblyman Dennis Cardoza, a former aide who has wrested cash and endorsements from former Condit supporters. Polls conducted by Cardoza's campaign showed the state legislator leading by a 2-to-1 ratio.

Condit's bid for another term was shadowed by the case of Washington, D.C., intern Chandra Levy, 24, who vanished as she was preparing to move home to Modesto after her internship ended at the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

Washington police sources have said Condit admitted he had an affair with Levy the third time he was questioned, although in media interviews he has declined to reveal the exact nature of their relationship. Law enforcement officials have said he is not a suspect in the disappearance.

The divisive Republican race for the gubernatorial nomination was dominated by two Los Angeles millionaires, fellow parishioners at the same Santa Monica Roman Catholic church.

Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, encouraged by the White House to run, once held an overwhelming lead in the polls over Los Angeles businessman Bill Simon. However, Simon, who had never before run for political office, vaulted into the lead in the most recent polls.

Simon poured millions of his own personal fortune into his campaign and even attracted attention from representatives of President Bush who had become uncomfortable with Riordan's chances.

Now Riordan has been forced to try to show Republicans that only he, as a moderate, can beat Davis in a state where Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans. Simon, on the other hand, is pinning his hopes on an expected small turnout of conservatives who can't abide Riordan's relative liberalism.

``It started a huge food fight in the Republican party,'' said Bruce Cain, a University of California, Berkeley, political scientist.

Until the final weeks, the Republican candidates had concentrated on bashing Davis, who is unopposed in the Democratic primary but has spent nearly $15 million on his campaign _ more than any of his GOP rivals.

Davis, who still has $28.6 million left in his war chest, appeared difficult to beat less than two years ago, when the state was enjoying a record budget surplus. But the state's power crisis last year helped turn the surplus into an estimated $14.5 billion deficit.

An electricity deregulation plan put in place before Davis took office helped spur supply problems that sent prices soaring, forced some blackouts and turned the state into the power purchaser for cash-strapped utilities. Davis' opponents have accused him of failing to respond to the crisis quickly enough, and criticized him for agreeing to long-term power contracts that are now widely considered to have been overpriced.

Together, Davis, Riordan and Simon had spent more than $30 million by mid-February.

A third candidate in the Republican primary, Secretary of State Bill Jones, was the most politically experienced candidate in the field. However, he never managed to build any momentum or raise cash for his campaign.

In a newly created Los Angeles County congressional district, Democrat Linda Sanchez is running to join her sister Rep. Loretta Sanchez of Garden Grove in the House of Representatives. Linda Sanchez faces Assemblywoman Sally Havice and former Clinton administration aide Hector de la Torre, a city councilman for South Gate.

California voters also face a ballot initiative to revise the term-limits law that was approved in 1990. If passed, it would let a legislative district's voters petition to extend their legislator's tenure by an extra four years.

A poll released Friday showed opposition to the initiative was growing, rising to 51 percent in late February from 45 percent in late January.

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