One way or another, an under-the-table real-estate deal will end his long run in Congress.
Three exit strategies are available to Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, the saltiest congressman in North County's history.
1. Cunningham could walk away before his term expires next year, forced out by a transaction that walks and quacks like a bribe.
Granted, other congressmen have proven adept at deflecting ethical questions Texas Rep. Tom DeLay leaps to mind but Cunningham could opt to flee an inflamed House, especially if the law is closing in.
2. The Vietnam war hero could bow his neck and run for re-election in 2006. If he were to take this path, he would ignominiously lose, either to an ambitious Republican in the primary or to a breathing Democrat in the general election, a result that's almost unthinkable in a red congressional district.
3. Cunningham could bow his neck and plod to the end of this term. He could give a farewell speech, citing his love of God and country and his desire to spend more time with his family. Like an old warrior, he could fade away in Rancho Santa Fe.
As the gravity of his self-inflicted wound sinks in, I wonder if Duke's mind will flash back to his political salad days when he was the All-American jet pilot who could slay giants.
Oh, the irony.
In 1990, the Vietnam ace flew out of nowhere to defeat Rep. Jim Bates in a South Bay district that favored Democrats. Dogged by sexual harassment allegations, Bates was seriously bruised.
Cunningham took full advantage and shot down the Democrat.
Two years later, Cunningham sought greener GOP pastures when he challenged Rep. Bill Lowery in North County's newly formed 51st District.
Lowery, a six-term Republican incumbent, was bleeding from every pore. For one, he was linked to convicted S&L kingpin Don Dixon. Lowery was also one of the serial offenders in the House's check-kiting scandal. Some 300 times, Lowery received what were, in effect, interest-free loans from House funds.
For his part, Cunningham had written just one rubber check in his first term.
As the two congressmen locked horns, the Escondido Times-Advocate ran a cartoon depicting Lowery as a sad sack in a thick overcoat. Rubber checks were flying out of his pockets and baggage. Cunningham, on the other hand, was dancing a merry jig, buck naked except for one check serving as a fig leaf.
Shortly thereafter, Lowery pulled out of the race. Cunningham cake-walked to victory. Since then, he's never been seriously challenged at the polls.
That isn't to say Cunningham's behavior hasn't been challenging.
Who can forget his obscene gesture while addressing cancer patients? Or his recommendation that House Democratic leaders and Vietnam war protesters be rounded up and shot?
Well, North County obviously likes its war heroes feisty and offers them plenty of slack.
On Tuesday, I called up Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, to get his take on his old friend's real-estate problem.
Hunter was inclined to overlook the whole thing. "I just saw Duke and he told me, 'I've been totally above-board,' " Hunter said. "That's good enough for me. He's an American hero and should be given the benefit of the doubt."
Well, the hero card plays most of the time, but now we're talking money the pungent whiff of corruption not who's the most passionate patriot.
In late 2003, Cunningham wanted to sell his house near Del Mar Heights Road, which he bought in 1988. His house, while large, was unspectacular by Del Mar's tony standards.
Mitchell Wade, a Pentagon contractor whose livelihood depended on Cunningham's defense appropriations subcommittee, agreed to buy the house for $1,675,000 in a private, no-commission deal.
Elizabeth Todd, a Del Mar real-estate agent and a faithful donor to Cunningham's campaigns, pulled up some supposed comps and helped suggest a price.
A month later, Wade put the house on the market, initially asking $1,680,000. Months later, despite a white-hot housing market, the sale price fell to $975,000, a $700,000 loss.
Todd received commissions on Wade's sale of the Del Mar Heights house and Cunningham's purchase of a $2.55 million house in the Ranch.
Wade took a bath on the house deal, but his multimillion-dollar Pentagon contracts spiked after the sale.
Lucky Cunningham. Lucky Todd. Lucky Wade. Everybody made out like bandits.
Now they're looking like bandits.
So it's going to be open season.
Conservatives such as Assemblyman Mark Wyland, R-Vista, and former North County Assemblyman Howard Kaloogian are no doubt handicapping their odds. State Sen. Bill Morrow and Supervisor Bill Horn could sniff at a wide-open congressional seat.
Democrats are wondering if the scandal might offset the Republican registration advantage in the 50th District GOP: 45 percent; Democrat: 30 percent.
Francine Busby, the spirited Democratic challenger in Cunningham's last election, is an obvious contender, but it's possible another Democrat of greater stature former state Sen. Dede Alpert, for example could smell the fresh blood and dive into the pool.
A week ago, Cunningham was The Duke. Today, he's burnt toast.
It would take one helluva phoenix to rise from these ashes.
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