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Condit's future on line in California primary

SACRAMENTO, California (CNN) -- The 2002 primary season gets under way Tuesday, as voters in California choose candidates for governor, decide if term limits should be relaxed and have their say on embattled Rep. Gary Condit's future in Congress.

Amid predictions of a low voter turnout, the highest profile race on the Golden State ballot is the Republican battle for the nomination for governor. The race is a contest between former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, conservative businessman Bill Simon and Secretary of State Bill Jones.

Polls show Riordan and Simon neck-and-neck despite the fact the more moderate Riordan was recruited to run by the White House in the belief that he would have a better shot at dislodging Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in November.

Simon, a political newcomer and son of the late William Simon, who was treasury secretary in the Ford administration, has been helped in recent weeks by Davis' multi-million dollar ad blitz targeting Riordan.

"He's done a great job of demonizing Dick Riordan, and I think people have to show Gray Davis [that] you can't steal the Republican primary, because that's his way of winning in November," Riordan said Tuesday after voting at his Los Angeles polling place. "We can't stand four more years of Gray Davis."

The winner of the GOP primary will likely face the incumbent Davis in November's general election. Davis faces only token opposition in the Democratic primary.

Simon may also have benefited by positioning himself to the right of Riordan -- who supports abortion rights and opposes the death penalty -- in a pitch to the Republican faithful. By some estimates, about two-thirds of the GOP primary electorate are conservatives.

"The lower the turnout, the more conservative the Republican electorate, the better it is for Bill Simon," said Sherry Jeffe, a political analyst from the University of Southern California.

Jones, who as secretary of state oversees elections, estimated that only 36 percent of California's voters would turn out for the primary.

He said voter interest has been dimmed by the Legislature's decision to move up the primary date, making Tuesday's ballot the earliest in state history and putting the campaign season amid such distractions as the Christmas holidays, the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics.

Condit faces a tough challenge

Meanwhile, in the 18th Congressional District in the Central Valley east of San Francisco, voters will have their say on Condit's fate for the first time since news broke of his relationship with missing Washington intern Chandra Levy.

He is facing a stiff challenge from Democratic state Assemblyman Dennis Cardoza and five other members of his own party. Cardoza was once a congressional aide to Condit.

"I'd like to win, but whatever happens, happens," Condit said as he left his polling station Tuesday morning, trailed by a gaggle of camera crews and reporters. "This is the voters' day. It's up to them to decide, and whatever they decide, we'll all accept and move on."

Levy, 24, was last seen in Washington this past spring, shortly after completing an internship. Police said they found no evidence of wrongdoing and never named any suspects in the case.

Still, Condit, 53, emerged as a key figure because of his relationship with Levy. He refused to publicly describe it, but police sources said the married congressman and grandfather admitted during an interview with investigators to an affair with the young woman.

Levy's family charged that Condit impeded the investigation by initially holding back details about the relationship.

Condit and his supporters insist the decision on his re-election should be based on his record as a public servant, not the media frenzy surrounding the Levy case.

"All of the negative stories and negative publicity -- some 7,000 stories over the summer -- it's made it real difficult," said Chad Condit, his father's campaign manager.

"But we're fighters. Gary Condit's always been a fighter for the Central Valley. He'll continue to do that."

Doug White, Cardoza's campaign manager, said questions about Condit's conduct in the Levy case were "appropriate."

"There are certainly questions that the congressman needs to answer to and maybe bring a little peace of mind to his constituents who have some concerns," White said.

Term limits approved in 1990

Also on Tuesday's ballot is Proposition 45, which would relax a state constitutional amendment approved by voters in 1990 that limits members of the state Assembly to six years in office and members of the state Senate to eight.

The provision would allow voters to petition for their legislator to run for re-election to either two more two-year terms in the Assembly or one more four-year term in the Senate. Twenty percent of the voters in a district would have to sign the petitions for the legislator to run again.

A number of business leaders and public employee groups back the change, saying the legislature needs experienced leaders to deal with complex problems.

Opponents, including Riordan and others who advocate term limits, say the proposition would allow entrenched politicians to maintain their power and would thwart the will of the people expressed back in 1990.

Other races

In other races, Linda Sanchez is making a bid to join sister Rep. Loretta Sanchez in Congress. She is one of five Democrats seeking the nomination in the 39th Congressional District, an open seat in a heavily Hispanic and Democratic area of Los Angeles County.

And in Orange County, Superior Court Judge Ronald Kline, under house arrest after being charged with child molestation and possession of child pornography, is running unopposed for re-election. But 11 candidates are running write-in campaigns against him.

Kline faces federal charges of possessing child pornography and state charges of child molestation, stemming from alleged incidents the late 1970s. He has steadfastly denied the charges.

Investigators began looking at Kline after a computer hacker nicknamed Omnipotent purloined an electronic copy of a diary allegedly belonging to Kline and turned it over to a watchdog group called The diary contained references to sexual interest in teen-age boys.

While his name is the only one that will appear on Tuesday's ballot, the write-in candidates hope to garner enough support to derail his re-election.

"I just can't believe that Orange County voters would let anything else happen," said Gay Sandoval, one of the write-in candidates, in an interview Monday on CNN.




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