updated 4/8/2006 4:02:28 PM ET 2006-04-08T20:02:28

If there is any doubt about whether ethics matter, consider how the scandal of a former GOP congressman now doing prison time for tax evasion and bribery has cast a long shadow over a House election.

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This solid Republican district on the Southern California coast should be a cakewalk for the GOP in Tuesday’s contest to choose Randy “Duke” Cunningham’s successor. Complicating the Republican outlook, however, is Democrat Francine Busby, whose campaign has shone a harsh spotlight on corruption, and an everyone-on-the-ballot format involving 18 candidates.

“You have to be perceived as pure if you want a shot in this campaign,” pollster John Nienstedt said.

Cunningham represented California’s 50th Congressional District from 1993 until he resigned in disgrace late last year. In March, he was sentenced to more than eight years in federal prison on charges of evading taxes and accepting $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors.

The district comprises a chunk of the city of San Diego, which has dealt with its own scandals. Two city councilmen were convicted last year of political corruption charges, and Mayor Dick Murphy resigned seven months into his second term amid a widening federal investigation into the city’s deficit-ridden pension fund.

Cunningham’s woes are fresh and it is possible that Republicans will split the vote among 14 candidates. That gives Busby a shot in the district in which GOP voters outnumber Democrats by a 3-2 margin.

An uncertain race
If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the top finisher from each party competes in a June 6 contest. An outright winner Tuesday or, more likely, the winner of the June contest takes a seat in Congress — and immediately begins the campaign for the November election.

“This is really a bellwether to see whether or not the culture of corruption has taken voters beyond partisanship,” said Busby, 55, a school board member who lost soundly to Cunningham in 2004.

Political observers are not expecting her to win over independents or Republicans.

“I haven’t seen much evidence that the average dependable Republican voter has decided to throw the GOP baby out with bathwater,” said Carl Luna, a political science professor at San Diego’s Mesa College.

Busby is attracting national attention and money. She has raised $1.3 million — five times what she collected two years ago. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the party’s 2004 presidential nominee, will attend a small private fundraiser for Busby on Monday.

Reflecting the high stakes, national Republicans spent some $300,000 in the campaign’s final week on advertisements criticizing Busby for accepting donations from lobbyists.

Rep. Tom Reynolds, R-N.Y., who heads the House Republican campaign committee, said Friday that Busby could get as much as 40 percent or 44 percent of the vote.

In explaining the late ad buy, Reynolds said, “She’s been able to kind of build momentum on her own without having that type of primary and at the end of the day we want to make sure we have a level playing field going into the general election.”

A former congressman and a political newcomer
Among the leading Republican candidates are Brian Bilbray, a former congressman turned lobbyist who has had to fend off criticism that he is part of the problem. A surfer and former lifeguard, he is the preferred choice of the GOP establishment.

Republican rival Eric Roach criticized Bilbray for accepting a trip to the Pacific islands from convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Roach also sued in an unsuccessful attempt to force Bilbray to identify himself as a lobbyist on the ballot.

A political newcomer, the conservative Roach has refused money from political action committees and has talked about ridding Washington of lobbyists and special interests. The brokerage firm founder has spent more than $1.8 million of his own money on the campaign.

Howard Kaloogian, a former California assemblyman, announced his candidacy during a tour of Iraq intended to show that the war was going well. He even posted a photo on his campaign Web site of what was identified as peaceful city block in Baghdad.

Internet bloggers, however, revealed that the photo was actually a street in Istanbul, Turkey, where Kaloogian also stopped on the trip. The photo was removed from the site.

The crowded field includes former NFL player Scott Turner; a California highway patrolman; a math teacher; and a Hawaiian-shirt wearing Libertarian who had called for the overthrow of the Mexican government.

With six months to go before the general election, candidates have spent nearly $5.7 million, putting the race on track to be one of the most expensive House races in history. The record was set in 2000, when more than $11.5 million was spent in the California’s 29th district race won by Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff.

“It’s really up to the Republicans to blow this one,” political scientist Luna said, “but given how they’re going I wouldn’t put it past them.”

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