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Lancing Lantos

Speier Expected to Launch Primary Challenge

Correction Appended

Backed by an internal poll that showed her beating veteran Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) by 30 points, former state Sen. Jackie Speier is close to entering the Democratic primary in the San Francisco-area 12th district.

Speier, whose old Senate district fully encompasses the 12th, formed an exploratory committee last month and currently is raising money and gauging political support. Speier probably will wait until January to reveal her plans, but individuals close to the one-time House aide and 2006 candidate for lieutenant governor fully expect her to challenge Lantos in the June 3 primary.

“It is my personal belief that Jackie should run and will run,” said Nancy Parrish, the chairwoman of Speier’s failed 2006 bid for lieutenant governor. “Nothing we’ve seen so far would discourage that assessment.”

Speier did not respond to a message left at the San Francisco law office of Hanson, Bridgett, Marcus, Vlahos & Rudy, where she is employed as an attorney, and instead referred that call to Parrish.

Lantos spokeswoman Lynne Weil said her boss is planning to seek a 15th term next year, and is prepared to fend off Speier. In fact, the 79-year-old Congressman closed the third quarter of the year with a healthy $1.4 million in cash on hand.

Weil said Lantos is not taking his seat for granted, and acknowledged that the Congressman might face some political trouble over his vote to authorize President Bush to use force in Iraq. But she dismissed speculation that Lantos’ career could be in serious jeopardy, arguing that most voters who might be tempted to vote for Speier stick with the Congressman once they are reminded about the full extent of his record.

“Tom Lantos has a long and distinguished record of constituent service,” Weil said. “He offers a lot to the people of the 12th district.”

Weil indicated that a key portion of Lantos’ message in any primary campaign would be that his seniority allows him to get things done for his district that a freshman Member never could. She also indicated that Lantos’ record of raising money and campaigning for other House Democrats would come in handy in any primary campaign.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who represents an adjoining district, in particular has been one of Lantos’ staunchest backers over the years. However, Speier’s supporters say the data are on their side.

Democratic pollster Jim Moore surveyed 350 likely Democratic primary voters for Speier Oct. 30 through Nov. 1 and found that Speier led Lantos 57 percent to 27 percent in a hypothetical matchup. The poll, with an error margin of 5.3 points, also showed Speier to have a favorable/unfavorable rating of 75 percent to 7 percent. Lantos’ numbers in that category were 55 percent to 26 percent.

“She is exceptionally strong,” Moore said during a telephone interview this week. “This is probably the strongest female candidate in the state of California outside of” Sens. Barbara Boxer (D) and Dianne Feinstein (D).

Moore, who besides polling for Speier has surveyed for Pelosi, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and other House Democrats from California, said many voters in the Bay Area have soured on Lantos because of his Iraq vote. Moore said those who are aware of this are “upset,” while those who don’t know and learn about it are “upset even more.”

Since that vote, Lantos has turned into a vocal critic of the Iraq War. But his initial support, and his vote in favor of the Patriot Act — he later voted against reauthorizing the legislation twice — appears to be prompting some Democratic Party activists to back Speier.

Moore’s poll showed that both Lantos and Speier have 95 percent name identification in the 12th district. It’s not surprising, as both are longtime area politicians with compelling personal stories.

Lantos has the unique distinction of being the only Holocaust survivor ever to serve in Congress. He is chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and has spent much of his political career focused on high-profile human rights and foreign policy issues that have afforded a considerable amount of press coverage.

Speier, a former Congressional aide, member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and longtime California legislator, is also no stranger to the public eye.

Speier in 1978 was serving as a staffer for then-Rep. Leo Ryan (D-Calif.) and accompanied him to Guyana in November of that year on a mission to investigate possible human rights abuses at the Peoples Temple compound in Jonestown run by the Rev. Jim Jones. Some of Jones’ followers were Ryan’s constituents.

Ryan was killed when Jones’ followers opened fire on Ryan, Speier and others in the fact-finding delegation as they were boarding a plane to head back to the United States. Speier was shot five times but survived despite lying on the airport tarmac for 22 hours while waiting for medical help to arrive.

She subsequently ran and lost the special election to replace Ryan in Congress but later ran for a seat on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors and won.

Moore’s poll did not include any push questions. The head-to-head question asked simply: “Who would you most likely support in the Democratic party primary for United States Congress, if the choice was …” The names of Lantos and Speier were offered as choices and periodically rotated.

Two percent of those surveyed said they would support neither candidate, while 15 percent said they had no opinion.

Speier’s performance in the 2006 Democratic primary for lieutenant governor suggests that she could be a formidable candidate. Although she lost, she finished just 2 points behind the winner, now-Lt. Gov. John Garamendi (D).

Parrish’s prediction that Speier would challenge Lantos was echoed by David Townsend, a Democratic consultant based in Sacramento who is a close friend of Speier’s and acted as an unofficial adviser to her during her 2006 race.

“Jackie is getting an enormous amount of encouragement in her district to run,” Townsend said. “It looks to me like she’s going to be running.”

Correction: Dec. 6, 2007
The article incorrectly reported that former California state Sen. Jackie Speier (D) served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and additionally reported incorrectly that Speier laid on the tarmac of a Guyana airport for “over 20 minutes” waiting for medical attention after she had been shot five times just before boarding her plane. In fact, Speier served on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors and was left lying on the Guyana airport tarmac for 22 hours before medical attention finally arrived.

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