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Primary Time For Gary Condit

The 10-month saga of the missing intern and the embattled congressman reaches a turning point Tuesday as voters decide what the next chapter holds for Rep. Gary Condit.

It's the toughest race Condit has faced in a 30-year career that has carried him from City Hall in Ceres, a farming town in the middle of the state, to the state Capitol and on to Congress.

And some voters can't wait for the turmoil to be over.

"This district is wound up pretty tight right now," said Sandra Lucas, chairwoman of the Stanislaus County Democratic Central Committee. "Everyone's praying for Tuesday night. This district needs this battle over."

A year ago, no one could have expected that Condit would even face opposition in Tuesday's primary election. He had won by wide margins ever since capturing the 18th Congressional District seat in a special election in 1989.

Then Modesto native Chandra Levy, 24, vanished from Washington in May and Condit's political fortunes changed.

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

In addition to the scandal, the Central Valley district once known as Condit Country has been reconfigured, making the career politician scramble to get to know as many new faces as possible in an area that now includes a slice of urban Stockton to the north.

But his toughest challenge in the Democratic primary comes from Assemblyman Dennis Cardoza, a former aide-turned-adversary who has successfully wooed Condit's supporters for cash and endorsements.

Cardoza, who once said he would not run against Condit, has raised three times as much money as Condit and says his polling shows he'll win by double digits.

The winner of the primary will face the victor in a four-candidate GOP field.

Amid the controversy over Levy, Condit virtually dropped out of the public eye and there was uncertainty whether he would defend his seat even after Cardoza got into the race.

But at the final hour, Condit rolled up to the county election office Dec. 7 with his papers in hand and said he was in the running to keep his job.

He has gone from blaming the news media for his downfall to courting reporters and casting himself as a victim in a bid for support.

And in the awkward dance around the matter of his reported affair with Levy, Condit has gone from avoiding the issue to embracing it.

He says he prays that she'll be found and that his presence in the race keeps her case alive. He even suggests that re-electing him would bring more attention to her plight.

Condit, 53, is quick to blame others for trying to earn political points over a missing persons case. But opponents claim he has made it a top issue for his own gain.

"His whole strategy is 'You have to elect me because that's the only way we're going to find out anything about Chandra Levy,"' said Cardoza spokesman Doug White. "That's offensive to us."

In the final days of the race, there have been claims of dirty campaigning on each side and Condit has taken desperate measures to remain competitive.

He dumped $50,000 from the sale of his Washington condominium into his campaign account a week ago - the first time he's used his own money in a congressional race. He went on "Larry King Live," only the second time Condit has gone on national TV for an extended interview.

After returning from a quick trip to Capitol Hill to vote, he returned to his home turf, and in the final weekend of the campaign he walked precincts and worked the phones in hopes his fortunes will change again.

By Brian Melley