LA CANADA FLINTRIDGE, Calif. -- Republican Rep. James Rogan, targeted for political extinction by the Democratic Party for his aggressive and compromising role as a House manager in the impeachment of President Clinton, held his first debate with Democratic challenger Adam Schiff here the other night. The matter of the impeachment never came up.
One reason was the format -- questions from a moderator focused on matters the 27th Congressional District winner would have to face next year in Congress. But Mr. Rogan's unapologetic prosecution of Mr. Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky affair is now his prime identification, and he says: "I'm under no illusions. If I lose this, it will be because of the impeachment."
In a poll in the district immediately afterward, he says, 75 percent of those surveyed said they wouldn't vote for him because of what he did. "But I'm not afraid to address it and I'm not afraid to do it on TV," he says. In a paid ad now airing, he says: "My opponent has accused me of some pretty terrible things. Oh, he's right that I made a lot of my Democrat friends angry when I supported impeachment. But I've sometimes angered Republicans too ..."
Further, Mr. Rogan says, "all of Schiff's money is impeachment money," meaning from out-of-state Democrats who have flocked to Mr. Schiff's support. Still, he says, "I'm more proud to have served with Henry Hyde on House impeachment than anything else I've ever done." As a campaign fund-raiser, he sells a wall poster picturing himself and the other House impeachment managers with Mr. Hyde, the House Judiciary Committee chairman.
Mr. Rogan's own campaign treasury likewise has been enriched by his impeachment role. He sent out mailings, he says, proclaiming: "I impeached Bill Clinton. The left is coming after me. I need your help," and the response was overwhelming. He says he will spend about $6 million by Nov. 7 and Schiff will come close to that, making their contest the most expensive ever for a House race.
While impeachment clearly is, as his campaign manager, Jason Roe says, "the elephant in the room" that Mr. Rogan must deal with, basic policy differences between his candidate and Mr. Schiff give voters here other clear bases on which to decide. Mr. Rogan's down-the-line conservatism and Mr. Schiff's liberalism, demonstrated in the debate, make the race more than a simple referendum on the impeachment.
Foremost is their disagreement on how to provide prescription drug benefits, mirroring the opposing views of presidential nominees George W. Bush and Al Gore. Surprisingly, however, neither Mr. Bush nor Mr. Gore has yet been in the district for his party's congressional candidate.
Mr. Schiff says the changing demographics of this once solidly Republican district, with an influx of immigrant and ethnic groups, have made Mr. Rogan vulnerable. "Impeachment is only the most graphic indication of how out of step he is with the voters," Mr. Schiff says.
The Rogan-Schiff contest is the highest-profile House race in the country as a result of Mr. Rogan's role and the determination of the Democrats to punish him for it. But there are at least three other California seats now held by Republicans that are also up for grabs, making the state the key to Democratic ambitions to regain control after six years of GOP leadership.
With the Republicans holding only a 12-seat advantage in the House, the Democrats need a net pickup of only six seats to make House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt the new speaker, with the power to break any tie votes.
Republican incumbents Steve Kuykendall in the 36th Congressional District just south of Los Angeles and Brian Bilbray in the 49th District in San Diego also face stiff challenges, as does Jim Cuneen in the 15th District around San Jose, an open seat held by retiring GOP Rep. Tom Campbell, now running for the Senate.
Although control of the House is critical to the two major parties, it is not a direct issue on which voters are expected to cast their ballots, several of the California congressional campaign managers acknowledge. Local issues will dominate, they say, with the probable exception of the Rogan-Schiff race, and that "elephant in the room" that can't be ignored.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.