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Parties Seek Lessons from Bilbray's House Win

Republican Brian Bilbray won a special election Tuesday for the San Diego seat in the U.S. House of Representatives vacated by Randy "Duke" Cunningham. The former incumbent went to jail for bribery earlier this year, so Democrats hoped the district might be vulnerable. But Bilbray won with barely half the vote in a district where Republicans have often won by more than 60 percent.

In defeating Democrat Francine Busby, Bilbray defied what has been seen as a recent anti-Republican trend, fueled by scandals in Congress and difficulties in Iraq. The final tally showed a 49-45 advantage for Bilbray.

Despite Bilbray's return to Congress -- he represented a neighboring district until losing an election in 2000 -- Busby insisted that the close outcome means that her party will be in contention this fall. "This will send a message across the country," Busby said, "that will start a momentum to put wind in the other sails to take us to victory in November."

Bilbray took a national issue, immigration, and used it locally. In a district that is just miles from the Mexican border, Bilbray painted himself as tough on immigration, and his opponent as weak. The Republican won even though a third-party candidate, backed by the hard-line border control group the Minutemen, took 4 percent of the vote.

Looking ahead to the national elections of this fall, many political analysts say as many as 36 elections are too close to predict a winner.

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Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.