California Key To Control Of House?

George W. Bush signals with the "W" for his middle initial during a campaign rally Monday, Oct. 30, 2000, in Fresno, Calif.
It’s often referred to as ground zero in the battle to control Congress.

Democrats need a gain of just seven seats nationwide to recapture the House of Representatives - and they’ve got their sites set on four of them in the Golden State, all of which remain close on the eve of the election.

The national Democratic and Republican parties have poured big money into the targeted races and dispatched a parade of high-profile surrogates to boost local candidates. California’s potential role any election night drama is likely to be heightened by the fact the state's closely contested races won't be called until very late.

The state has five especially close contests. In four of them, Democratic challengers are threatening Republican incumbents:

Surge In Calif.
Absentee Voters

So many California voters have requested absentee ballots that Americans might not know which presidential candidate won Tuesday night.

Or even the next night.

A record 3.2 million Californians have requested absentee ballots which could leave the results of close races throughout the state in doubt for days or even weeks. California's 54 electoral votes promise to be critical in the hunt for the White House.

More than 1 million of those absentee ballots, or nearly 10 percent of the 12 million votes expected in California, will not be counted on election night, according to county election officials. (AP)

  • The San Gabriel Valley's 27th District, where Republican Rep. James Rogan, a House manager during President Clinton's impeachment trial, is battling Democratic state Sen. Adam Schiff.
  • In the Silicon Valley's 15th District, two state assemblymen, Republican Jim Cunneen and Democrat Mike Honda, are vying to succeed GOP Rep. Tom Campbell.
  • In Los Angeles County's south bay, Democrat Jane Harman is fighting to take back the 36th District seat she surrendered in 1998 when she ran for governor. Republican Steve Kuykendall seeks a second term.
  • In coastal San Diego County, GOP incumbent Brian Bilbray faces a challenge from Democratic Assemblywoman Susan Davis in the 49th District.
  • In the state's 20th district, Republicans are turning the tables on the Democrats. Incumbent Democrat Cal Dooley is facing a threat from newscaster-turned-politician Rich Rodriguez in this Central Valley turf battle. A long line of prominent Republicans has come to the Valley in support of Rodriguez, including presidential nominee George W. Bush, who made a stop there just last week.

    "There are some races that are going to go down to the wire," said Marit Babin, a spokesperson for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "We feel very confident… (the candidates) have done everything they need to dto put themselves in the strongest position possible."

    Babin said the candidates have benefited from the regular visits by the Texas governor, particularly this fall when party members worried he might abandon the state to campaign in states where he has a better chance of winning.

    Al Gore still holds a 5-7 percent lead in recent California polls, but his single-digit lead reflects an erosion over the last few weeks. Democrats have expressed concern, saying that low turnout could potentially harm candidates down the ticket.

    "If Bush carries the state, the election is over, we could pick up a couple seats in Congress," said state Sen. Jim Brulte, the state GOP's finance chairman.

    The most closely watched House race in California - and arguably in the country - will be the contest to unseat Rep. James Rogan. One of two polls released in the last two weeks of October showed Rogan with a 6 percent lead, while the other gave the same advantage to challenger Adam Schiff. In his two general election victories, Rogan has never polled higher than 51 percent in his district, and in March he narrowly lost to Schiff in the state's open primary.

    Political analysts say the main reason for Rogan's political struggle is the changing demographics of his suburban Los Angeles district, which has attracted more minorities, young families and employees of the entertainment industry. But his prominent role in the president's impeachment has unquestionably not faded from voters' minds.

    Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, political scientist at Claremont Graduate University, believes impeachment was a factor early on in the campaign. It fueled a fund raising flurry that is making the contest the most expensive House race in U.S. history (two campaigns combined have raised more than $9 million), and it also defined the parameters of the campaigns.

    "First and foremost, it helped to paint (Rogan) as a right wing Republican out of step with his district," said Jeffe. Secondly, she says, it made him look vulnerable, which in turn attracted a strong challenge.

    California’s 15th Congressional District, in Silicon Valley, is considered highly competitive because the erstwhile Democratic-leaning swing district has become more conservative over the past several years as more wealthy high-tech workers have moved in. In Jeffe’s words, you have a competition between "two strong candidates that fit."

    Democrat Mike Honda was tapped by President Clinton to run and is be well-known and well-liked in the district. His opponent, Republican Jim Cunneen, has stressed that he is a moderate who is not afraid to distance himself from his party over issues such as abortion, gun control and the environment.

    While that race, too, is considered too close to call, some political observers say Democrats have a good chance of a seat the 36th district, south of Los Angeles. Democrat Jane Harman represents a particular threat to incumbent Seve Kuykendall because she held the seat once before.

    "You really have almost two incumbents," said Bruce Cain, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley.

    Cain predicts the GOP will suffer a net loss of one or two seats in California, and his calculations include a possible upset for Democrats in the 20th district. This agricultural area did not recover as well as others in the state over the last decade - despite a booming economy - and Cain believes incumbent Cal Dooley may face a perception that he did not do enough.

    But Democrats as a whole seem more in step with California’s new breed of voters on such bedrock issues as education, the economy and the environment.

    A poll by the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California this fall revealed that state voters prefer Democrats in U.S. House races by a 7 percent margin. An independent Field Poll conducted in August found a similar preference.

    "The theme for several of the seats is the shift and change of demographics," said Cain.

    CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report