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Updated Sunday, June 3, 2012 at 08:31 PM

California's first top-2 primary could yield odd results

By Carolyn Lochhead
San Francisco Chronicle

WASHINGTON — California's "top-two" primary, which debuts Tuesday, was intended to produce moderates, but in the U.S. Senate race could yield a challenger who claims President Obama was born in Kenya.

Incumbent Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 78, running for a fourth full term, faces 23 challengers, including 14 Republicans, the best known of whom is litigious Orange County "birther" Orly Taitz, a Russian/Israeli émigré who has claimed on national television that Obama faked his birth certificate.

Polls taken by robocalls, including those commissioned by Taitz, show Feinstein with a wide lead, trailed by a strange assortment of single-digit rivals, in some cases led by Taitz.

Whoever finishes second Tuesday, from any party, wins the chance to take on Feinstein in November.

A second-place finish by Taitz would be seen in both parties as a national embarrassment for the Republican Party, rivaling the candidacy of Christine "I am not a witch" O'Donnell, the 2010 GOP Senate nominee in Delaware.

Prominent Republicans declined this year to take on Feinstein, who is a well-funded, well-known institution in state politics. Nor did any wealthy self-funding candidate emerge after the failures of GOP challengers Carly Fiorina for U.S. Senate and Meg Whitman for governor two years ago.

Taitz, 51, who holds degrees in law and dentistry, said in a telephone interview that it is Obama who should be embarrassed. But she said she is basing her Senate race on jobs, water-desalination plants and education, not her claims about Obama's citizenship.

"We live in such a time of massive corruption that uncovering illegal actions and providing evidence to courts is somehow an embarrassment," Taitz said. "I see it as the right thing to do."

Al Ramirez, 43, a Santa Monica businessman who was endorsed by Assembly Republicans but lost the state party endorsement to autism activist Elizabeth Emken, 49, said the race is coming down to him and Taitz among Republicans.

California's new top-two primary system, similar to Washington's, was the brainchild of Abel Maldonado, a former Republican state senator and lieutenant governor from Santa Barbara County. The method, which was backed by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, is seen as a way to get rid of primaries dominated by partisans who elect partisan candidates.

The idea was to open the primaries to all voters, allowing moderate candidates to emerge. It was adopted by California voters with the approval of Proposition 14 in 2010.

The system was aimed at district-level races for the Legislature and U.S. House of Representatives, not the statewide U.S. Senate race.

"The law of unintended consequences has kicked in, and it's kind of a mess," said Bill Carrick, chief adviser to the Feinstein campaign.

Another candidate some pundits say may have a chance is Don Grundmann, a San Leandro chiropractor and herbalist who wants to eliminate the federal income tax and believes the Internal Revenue Service is corrupt.

Some analysts speculate Grundmann could attract independent voters who notice his affiliation with the American Independent Party, not realizing the party was founded in 1968 by segregationist George Wallace.

Political analysts said Taitz's name recognition and a potential surge from her base in Orange County, a GOP stronghold, could put her in second place.

Ramirez said the new system could produce three bad outcomes for the GOP: a Democrat could place second Tuesday, leaving no Republican on the November ballot for U.S. Senate; a third-party candidate could take second; or "the even worse scenario would be if Orly Taitz is in there because it would hurt the ticket nationally."

Ramirez said such a result would mean "there's absolutely no conversation about the issues. Dianne does not have to entertain any type of questioning about her record. She doesn't have to provide any plan for the future, because all she has to say is, 'I'm saving you from this disaster.' "

Top GOP officials acknowledge no one has a betting chance of beating Feinstein, who — despite a dip in her popularity and the loss of millions of dollars to her former treasurer and confessed embezzler Kinde Durkee — has $3 million in the bank and expects to collect more than $7 million by November. The latest campaign-finance reports show Emken a distant second with $327,686 in total receipts and less than half that in cash on hand.

Among Democratic candidates in the race are Collen Fernald, a mother, consultant and artist from Santa Rosa; David Levitt, a computer scientist and engineer from Sebastopol; Nak Shah, an environmental-health consultant from South San Francisco; Mike Strimling, a consumer-rights attorney from Piedmont; and Diane Stewart, a businesswoman and finance manager from Discovery Bay.

Real-estate magnate and reality-TV host Donald Trump, who also questions Obama's citizenship, caused heartburn for some Republicans last week with his endorsement of likely GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

"If they think the embarrassment over Donald Trump is bad, having the woman who brought all these lawsuits would be even worse," Carrick said.


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