Photo by Jack GouldJudging by the way Robert K. Dornan's entourage arrived at the registrar of voters on Dec. 5, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher is in trouble. A dented, rusty blue Volvo—minus the front grill—sped into the parking lot, took a wild swerve, narrowly missed a KOCE-TV van and lurched to a stop. A red-headed man with a beard and wearing a tie-windbreaker-sneaker ensemble jumped from the car. He smiled at startled reporters. It was Mark Dornan, a Queer Eye for the Straight Guy makeover candidate and son of Orange County's most infamous ex-congressman.
"I love this!" he said. "This is going to be fun!"
Fun indeed if you're a Dornan fan or a reporter looking for flames and scorched earth, but not if you're Rohrabacher. Since capturing his Huntington Beach congressional seat in 1988 with the help of none other than Bob Dornan, Rohrabacher has faced no serious challengers. He won't enjoy that luxury in the March 2004 Republican primary.
It's Dornan versus Rohrabacher, a grudge match likely to unleash a torrent of psychological warfare and dirty tricks not seen since Nixon's dastardly plumbers unit. Both men are Ronald Reagan conservatives who've known each other for more than 30 years. Together they've savaged countless liberals and causes. But the friendship is over. Rohrabacher thinks Dornan needs counseling; Dornan believes Rohrabacher is a wimp. Those familiar with Orange County politics know there's only one way to go from here: down.
Body blows landed immediately. Asked for his prognosis of the contest, Mark Dornan—a special education teacher in Fountain Valley and proud father of two little kids—didn't hesitate. "Come on," he said, his voice like a gravel crusher, like metal on metal. "Dana Rohrabacher is nowhere near the man my dad is." He grinned and added, "The worst thing that can happen to Dana is that he'll be forced to grow up."
A prominent Rohrabacher ally sees Dornan's candidacy as tragi-comic. "Why is Bob running?" said the source. "I'd say the choices are that he needs to feed his ego, he's delusional, his family needs the cash or a combination of all three."
Whatever Dornan's motivations, this much is certain: after a seven-year forced retirement, he's elated by the prospect of political resurrection. But he is no longer the man Americans knew in the 1970s and '80s as the nation's most vitriolic politician. Back then, Dornan—a gifted orator when he's succinct—would seethe, fulminate and occasionally throw punches to underscore convictions he believed would land him in the White House. He's softened noticeably after celebrating a 70th birthday this year, commentating on MSNBC, playing with his 14 grand kids and enduring two humbling defeats to Democrat Loretta Sanchez in 1996 and 1998.
When he arrived at the registrar's office in Santa Ana to declare his candidacy, Dornan slowly disembarked from the passenger side of a dark colored PT Cruiser. Patches of gray dotted his once bright red hair. He used a hand to lift his fragile right knee out of the vehicle. His first steps were wobbly, but when he gained his footing he cheerfully walked to waiting reporters. "This," he said pointing to a blue jacket with a B-1 bomber logo, "was given to me today by a Democrat who is a fan! Isn't that great?"
You could tell by the way he politely chatted with reporters without employing his trademark rants—gays, feminists, abortion, communism, the liberal media, Republican traitors—that Dornan no longer believes he's destined to lead a cause, a war, a country. He even fondly mentioned OC Weekly, arguably his most vocal media critic in the past. "I know things have changed in Orange County since I left," he told me.
Some observers are laughing off Dornan, but it would be a mistake for Rohrabacher, historically uninterested in raising campaign cash, to ignore the challenge. The physically imposing Dornan is gone, but the competitive spirit remains. He proudly talked of the Mimi's restaurant patron who recently wanted his autograph and all the Huntington Beach grocery shoppers who, according to aides, treated him "like a rock star." He wants to win and is willing to pour part of his life savings into the campaign. "Right now, I've got about $100,000 in the bank ready to go," he said. "I don't think I'll even need $300,000 for this race."
But his face hardened when the topic turned to Rohrabacher. "I'm not running against a Republican," he said. "I'm running against a libertarian who is pretending to be a Republican and who wants to legalize drugs. It's about time Dana stood up and got assessed. He acts like it's his seat. It's not. He doesn't own it and I think I can do a better job. I fully expect all the Republicans under the sun to endorse him because of the power of incumbency, but we both have similar name recognition in that district. Let's see what happens."
Besides the drug issue, Dornan sees Rohrabacher as a lazy incumbent who is weak on national security issues and especially lacking in support of Israel. Even worse for Dornan is Rohrabacher's character. "What can I say about Dana?" he said in his raspy voice. "Do you remember The Secret Life of Walter Mitty?" Dornan stopped talking—a rare occurrence—and grinned. A movie critic says the 1947 Danny Kaye film is about a "mouse of a man" who dreams he is a "great hero."
In support of his characterization, Dornan claims that an Orange County Republican official recently called his wife Sallie on Rohrabacher's behalf. "The guy tried to lean on her to get me out of this race," he said. "It was absurd . . . I've been told I'm a legitimate celebrity. Dana is a wannabe."
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If the story is true, it demonstrates naivety in the Rohrabacher camp. Dornan—who loves blood, sweat and a large body count in his campaigns—is rarely if ever intimidated. He sees such moves as first-round weakness in what he believes will evolve into "a tough family fight." But Dornan's already dreaming of his return to Congress, where he'll "add some color and [bring] principles back to the place." On a yellow legal-sized notepad he carried to the registrar's office, he'd written himself a note, "RKD . . . a moment in history."
Rohrabacher should pour himself a tall drink. Regardless of his frontrunner status, the next 80 days are sure to be painful. The Dornan family is energized and, with them, politics is personal. And then there's this looming fact: since his first successful campaign in 1976, Dornan has never lost a Republican congressional primary.
"Dana calls himself the 'surfing congressman,' but in all my years of knowing him, I've only heard of him Boogie boarding," said Dornan. "You know that photo he uses all the time to brag that he's been up on a surfboard? Did you ever notice there's no real wave? I think there must have been a guy under the water holding him up."
Fans of brass-knuckled politics will be looking for blood in the water.