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Southern California Congressman Buck McKeon Deflects Charges From Both Sides

LOS ANGELES (CBS) — With less than a week to go in the California primary, a powerful Southern California congressman finds himself facing his toughest test in more than a decade.

Political reporter Dave Bryan said Republican Howard "Buck" McKeon has spent much of his campaign deflecting charges, not just from the Democrats, but from his fellow Republicans as well.

The election should be a cakewalk, but by all accounts it might be close.

Says Bryan, charges of nepotism, sweetheart deals, and a nasty war of words with his former district director have made the once-solid-red 25th district anyone's game.

The 25th district stretches from Simi Valley to Mammoth Mountain. It includes parts of Lancaster, Thousand Oaks, Santa Clarita and Palmdale.

After two decades on Capitol Hill, Santa Clarita's first Mayor, Congressman Howard "Buck" McKeon is an institution in California's 25th congressional district. Now he's risen to become chair of the House Armed Services Committee, one of the most powerful positions in Washington.

McKeon is so well known and liked in this district, he hasn't had a tough race for Congress since his very first in 1992.

"Some I have had very little competition," McKeon says, "this one there's a lot more competition.

In fact this year's election may be a referendum on McKeon himself. He's been hounded by reports that he took a sweetheart deal on a mortgate refi in 1998 from Countrywide Financial. He flatly denies the charges, and says he's not being investigated by the House Ethics committee.

Podiatrist and surgeon Lee Rogers, a Democrat who's running against McKeon, has a different take on the Countrywide deal..

"People look at that and they say there's two sets of rules. There's the rules that they're operating by and there's the rules that the rest of us operate by."

Is McKeon worried his opponent's damaging words are landing? "We'll find out next week," he says, "I don't believe most people believe what's being said."

McKeon's wife Patricia, who, according to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington -- a campaign watchdog group -- made hundreds of thousands of dollars as her husband's campaign treasurer over the years, is  also running for office this year..

"She's running for the State Assembly and she's a hard worker," says McKeon.

McKeon's former district director Scott Wilk, doesn't go along with that and he is her opponent.

They're calling it the "Family Feud."

His opponents, both Democrat and Republican, are charging nepotism, including fellow Republican Dante Acosta, who wears his deceased son's dog tags, after the young man was killed in Afghanistan. Acosta says voters are fed up.

"The voters are tired of the nepotism and politics. They're tired of the corruption and politics."

Acosta adds,  "I think he comes to it with the kind of entitlement mentality where I can run my wife for office, I don't have to address any of the important issues, locally or on the national level."

McKeon's biggest problem may be the perception that he hasn't done enough to fight against a huge, proposed gravel and sand mine, by Cemex, a corporate giant. Rogers is attacking McKeon in a new campaign video

"Will someone please stand up and stop the Cemex mine?...not Buck McKeo

The battle has lasted almost a decade and McKeon says he fought it tooth and nail, but a ban on earmarks left his hands tied this year.

"I've been fighting Cemex for over ten years," says McKeon, "and I've put several bills in. I can't put one in this year, because it's against the rules of the House."

Jason Schaff is executive editor of the home town newspaper — the Santa Clarita Valley Signal. The paper declined to endorse McKeon, the 20-year incumbent, in the June 5th congressional primary, says Cemex is the most important issue to many voters in the district, but so is anger against incumbents..

"I think it goes back to the mood locally, and throughout the country about incumbents. And is 20 years too long to be in Congress?"

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