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Calif. congressman finds voters disenchanted with whole political system

CENTURY CITY, CALIF. — An article in The Sun yesterday on the congressional race in California's 37th District should have carried a dateline of Cathedral City.

CENTURY CITY, Calif. -- When Al McCandless, the local congressman, stands before the Rotary Club and talks about the antics back at "Disneyland East," heads bob in agreement.

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"Washington's probably more of a zoo than an amusement park, though," says Paul Donohue, a local building contractor and Rotarian. "We need more people like Al back there to keep things straight."

In normal times, four-term Representative McCandless would not worry much about winning re-election. He is Republican, his district is Republican, and, these days, scandal-free incumbent House members are almost never drummed out of office.

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These aren't, however, normal times. For one thing, Mr. McCandless is running against "Pa" Walton -- literally.

Democrat Ralph Waite, who played the near-sainted father on television's long-running series, "The Waltons," has entangled Mr. McCandless in the race of his career, and both men and all polls say the contest is a virtual dead heat.

Unlike other actor-cum-politicians who have graduated to the House of Representatives -- Representatives Ben Jones, D-Ga., who once played Cooter on "The Dukes of Hazzard," and Fred Grandy, R-Iowa, who played Gofer on "The Love Boat" -- Mr. Waite has not tried to brush aside his television persona.

Instead, he has built his campaign around it, implying that he would bring John Walton's compassionate rectitude to the halls of Congress.

"Being Papa Walton doesn't hurt," said Mr. Waite. "When you've been in people's living rooms for 10 years, you've been in intimate contact with them, and, frankly, my personality does not seem to be so far removed from John Walton's."

Yet if Mr. Waite wins Tuesday's election, it also may have something to do with Mr. McCandless' Republicanism -- an irony, given that his district has been one of the country's most conservative.

Many of Mr. McCandless' constituents echo sentiments heard around the country, expressing anger over the savings and loan crisis, befuddlement about this year's budget battles and dismay that the economy has lost its bounce.

Like voters everywhere, many of them contend that the political establishment is incapable of grappling with challenges lurking ahead. A random sampling of voters in Mr. McCandless' 37th District suggests that many -- perhaps most -- have a vague sense that "the system" needs to be changed, even if they are not sure how they ought to change it.

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"I think there is a feeling that politicians have gotten too fat and comfortable and complacent," said Ronald Irion, a high school social studies teacher in nearby Riverside. "A lot of people are ready to send them a message -- that they're mad as hell, and they're not going to take it anymore."

Like incumbent politicians everywhere, it is Mr. McCandless' task to assure voters that matters would be even worse if he weren't in office. Like many of his Republican colleagues, however, Mr. McCandless finds that events of the past few months have put him in a doubly difficult bind.

As a member of the party that has controlled the White House for 10 years, Mr. McCandless is hampered in his efforts to run against the political powers in Washington. On the campaign trail, Mr. McCandless does rail against the Democrats who control both houses of Congress, criticizing them as "tax-and-spend liberals" who dictated the terms of the deficit-reduction package passed last week.

President Bush, however, endorsed the budget deal Mr. McCandless criticizes, and he actively lobbied Republicans on its behalf. That is a source of almost unending discomfort for conservative Republicans like Mr. McCandless.

"It blurred the lines between the parties," said Mr. McCandless. "To that extent, it makes my job that much more difficult."

Changing demographics have not made his job any easier, and no district may more aptly reflect the political uncertainties of the coming decade than the 37th.

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It has been the fastest-growing congressional district in the country, having doubled in population during the last decade to something over 1 million. Entire cities have sprung up in places that were just dust and scrub and rock.

The district itself, a generally prosperous swath stretching from greater Los Angeles to the Arizona border, has been transformed into a conglomeration of wealthy retirement havens, suburban bedroom communities and immigrant hamlets.

In the midst of this, Mr. McCandless has been able to count on the help of some of his district's most illustrious residents, including former President Gerald R. Ford and entertainer Bob Hope, who live with other celebrities in the Coachella Valley lTC resorts of Rancho Mirage and Palm Springs.

Despite the former Cadillac salesman's long involvement in civic affairs -- he was Riverside County supervisor for 12 years -- many constituents don't know about his local political career and haven't lived in the district long enough to start paying attention to it.

Partly because of these changes, partly because of the congressman's characteristically low profile, most of his constituents have never heard of him. In May, one of Mr. McCandless' own polls showed that only 29 percent of voters could identify their congressman.

Mr. Waite has repeatedly attacked Mr. McCandless, a member of the House Banking Committee, for failing to do more to stop the S&L; scandal. The actor portrays himself as a "fiscally conservative liberal" whose particular interests center on matters pertaining to education and the elderly.

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"Watch my lips," he vowed. "If we're going to have to be responsible, we're going to have to talk about increasing revenues."

Mr. McCandless insists that that's not the kind of talk people want to hear.

"Ralph has said a lot of very negative things about me," he said.

"When people go to vote, that's not going to matter. What's going to matter are their checking accounts, and they don't have a lot of checks to write to the federal government."


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