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For a race that has garnered little national attention and virtually no outside money, today’s special Congressional election in Southern California seems surprisingly competitive.

Unlike the Democratic upset in New York two months ago, neither national party committee has spent any independent expenditures in the 36th district, which President Barack Obama won by 30 points in 2008. But in a sign of just how close the race could be, Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn’s (D) campaign called for presidential backup to help prevent what would be a stunning upset.

Republicans are now seeing red, as they believe a combination of low turnout and a flawed Democratic candidate could equal a GOP win for Craig Huey.

It was a surprise when Huey, a wealthy businessman and first-time candidate, advanced past the May 17 open primary. At the time, he was viewed as the GOP’s sacrificial lamb in the strongly Democratic district.

But Democrats became concerned enough that Obama for America began phone-banking, texting and emailing supporters on Hahn’s behalf two weeks ago. President Bill Clinton pitched in to record a last-minute automated call to help turn out voters in a district in which Democrats hold an 18-point registration advantage.

“Tomorrow is Election Day, and your vote will determine the outcome of this very critical election. Please, go to the polls tomorrow and vote for Janice Hahn. Thank you,” Clinton said in a Monday call to district voters.

Clinton helped recruit Hahn to run for the seat in 1998, when former Rep. Jane Harman (D) left Congress the first time to run for governor. Hahn lost that race in what was then a more GOP-friendly district. She remains close with Harman, who resigned in February and recruited her to run.

An auto-dial poll released Monday by Democratic firm Public Policy Polling found Hahn ahead 52 percent to 44 percent. The poll of 619 likely voters, taken on behalf of liberal blog DailyKos and the Service Employees International Union, was conducted July 8-10 and had a 3.9-point margin of error. It likely gave Democrats a slight sigh of relief, but the single-digit margin was still worrisome.

California’s 36th district hugs the Pacific Ocean in southern Los Angeles County. The district’s diverse set of issues changes with each exit on Interstate 405, as do the voters. From Venice Beach at the northern end, into the South Bay past Los Angeles International Airport, through the Beach Cities and inland to the population heart of Torrance and south to San Pedro, it’s unknown who will actually get out to the polls for today’s midsummer special contest.

The uncertainty of turnout led Hahn to run cable TV ads that omitted any mention that she is a Democrat. Instead, they mostly attacked Huey as a right-winger  who is more conservative than Sarah Palin and painted Hahn as a nonpartisan problem solver.

The Hahn campaign and Democratic consultants said it was an effective strategy to reach out to fiscally conservative Republicans and “decline to state” voters who could play a deciding role in the low-turnout election. But the fact that Hahn was running ads at all signaled to some observers that this was a real race.

Despite the concern that the race is close, LA-based Democratic consultant Roy Behr said he doubts Huey will win.

“I think the Hahn campaign hasn’t taken any chances,” Behr said. “They’ve run like they’re worried about an upset — which is the best way to avoid an upset.”

Huey, president of a marketing consulting firm, had loaned his campaign almost $900,000 by last week. Aside from a $5,000 check cut by the National Republican Congressional Committee on July 1, his campaign has run autonomous from the national party.

Distributing DVDs door-to-door, it aggressively pushed a 3-year-old local Fox News report that Hahn had worked with convicted felons in her efforts to stem gang violence and even helped get some out of jail. The local Fox affiliate followed that last week with an update of its report, running a 9-minute segment on Hahn’s work with gang members.

Hahn was asked about the controversy last week as the first question of the contest’s only debate, which was broadcast on public radio. Hahn noted that she represents Watts on the City Council and that she was forced to try new tactics in her gang-prevention efforts there. But she denied ever helping a gang member get out of jail.

Huey, who has cast himself as a small-business owner worried about debt, taxes and spending, received a late fundraising boost from the Tea Party Express, and Republican activists hit the ground for him in the past few weeks. Los Angeles County GOP Chairwoman Jane Barnett said her “Red Team” has been knocking on doors in the district for weeks and that she organized buses to bring in about 500 volunteers from around the state.

But in such a Democratic district, expectations are still tempered.

“The Republicans are banking on a lower-than-average turnout in the 8- to 10-percent range, and that could result in a Republican win,” LA-based GOP consultant Matt Klink said Monday. “That being said, it would be a significant upset for the Republican to win tomorrow.”

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