STOCKTON — Hoping to save his political skin, Rep. Gary Condit is shaking every hand he can.
Last Friday, that quest took him to a retirement home in this former Gold Rush depot, where he flashed his wide grin and started pumping hands.
“I’m Gary Condit,” he told a woman, who said he looked familiar.
Familiar maybe, but not someone any of them could vote for.
Most of those he met said they were Republicans and unable to vote for him in the March 5 primary. Even the Democrats couldn’t vote for Condit: The Bayside Landing community is not even in his redrawn congressional district.
Rookie mistakes like this only reinforce how uphill Condit’s bid for re-election is.
After a summer of bad publicity and abandonment by many of his Washington colleagues and political donors, Condit is running more like an underdog than a 12-year veteran.
His mailer plaintively asks voters: “Perhaps you will reconsider me when you vote for Congress.”
In person, however, Condit uses the charm that has given him an undefeated, 30-year electoral record, one that made him a household name in California’s Central Valley before it was linked to that of missing Washington intern Chandra Levy.
His weekend campaign swing started Friday morning at a Christian radio station, where Condit, the son of a Baptist minister, talked issues with four other Democratic candidates.
Into the crowd in their Sunday best walked Condit, wearing boots, blue jeans, a plaid shirt and corduroy jacket. He displayed clear command of the issues — the economy, energy and farming. The other candidates echoed his answers.
But the incumbent first elected to the Ceres city council in 1972 now looks more like a challenger, while his longtime friend, ally and protege, Assemblyman Dennis Cardoza, plays the front-runner.
Cardoza has won important endorsements, has an edge in the polls and has raised more money than Condit — $144,000 at year’s end to Condit’s $36,000. He held a Washington fund-raiser last week that aimed to bring in $40,000; Condit had a dinner in Turlock on Friday that raised about $5,750.
Condit once did TV commercials for Cardoza. Cardoza now does his own TV spots, while Condit can afford only radio.
Cardoza turned down the radio appearance, as well as more than 20 requests for debates, in part to avoid questions about Levy, said his spokesman Doug White.
Condit called that “disingenuous,” because Cardoza “wouldn’t be running if it wasn’t for the Chandra Levy case.”
After Levy vanished in May, Condit’s stronghold collapsed. Police sources said he admitted having a romance with Levy, 24, but is not considered a suspect in her disappearance.
Condit will not talk about it in any detail, saying he has no idea what happened to her. “It would be wonderful if she would turn up, and she would be healthy and everything,” he said. “It’s something I pray about every day.”
Levy’s name was not mentioned during the radio show or at a candidates’ forum on Sunday, which Cardoza did attend. But the case hangs over the campaign, in part because the 10 other people running would be doing something else if Levy never disappeared.
Condit is also facing a redrawn district full of voters who primarily know of him through news reports. The new district, approved by the Legislature in September, has a strong Democratic edge, but Condit lost much of his base.
As a result, the Condit who hustled from the cameras last summer is courting the media, often joking with photographers. The man who skipped public appearances is now spending as much time as he can walking precincts, speaking at churches and rallying his supporters.
At Krazy Gal’s Kafe in Gustine on Saturday, Condit slapped supporters on the back and called farmers by name. He hugged and kissed Janet Carlsen, the former mayor of nearby Newman, who said she loves Cardoza but still supports Condit and thinks he will pull out a victory.
“I feel safe with Gary,” she said.
Waitress Lisa Partlow said Condit’s visit made her and her 17-year-old daughter, a dishwasher at the restaurant, uncomfortable because of the Levy scandal.
“One woman asked if I was a supporter,” Partlow said. “I said, ‘No I’m not’ and she said, ’I don’t imagine any mother with daughters our age would be.”’
If he loses the primary, Condit said, he will not rule out anything, including running as an independent in November or returning to work as a welder, a job he held in his teens.
He suggested there is an undercurrent of support from the voters that does not register in the polls.
“Voters have a funny way of making things fair,” he said.