IRVINE, Calif. -- Marilyn Brewer, a leading Republican candidate for the nation's only open House seat, stared into the TV camera and proclaimed her support for the president.
She was not talking about George W. Bush.
''I stand side by side with Ronald Reagan on less taxes and less government," Brewer told voters at a candidate forum.
The former state assemblywoman also praised Nancy Reagan for her devotion to stem cell research, an issue that has bedeviled the Bush White House. And she touts her endorsement by Senator John McCain, the president's sometime rival and critic.
Not a word about Bush.
Later, the self-described loyal Republican who voted for the president in 2004 explained her reasoning: ''If the election was this year . . . he would not be reelected."
Seventeen candidates from five political parties are on the ballot in a special election tomorrow to fill the Orange County seat that Representative Christopher Cox, a Republican, relinquished to head the Securities and Exchange Commission. The wide-open contest has pitted Republican against Republican, highlighting rifts within the GOP over abortion, illegal immigration, and Bush.
Less than a year ago, Bush won nearly 60 percent of the vote in this hilly swath of coastal California where the airport is named after John Wayne and residents tend to be white, affluent, and Republican. But these days, polls suggest that the president's job approval ratings are at an all-time low, in part because of the war in Iraq and the administration's sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina.
Brewer is keeping her distance from Bush and is stressing her support for abortion rights and the environment to win the votes of moderate Republicans, Democrats, and independents.
She hopes to cobble together enough support to surprise the Republican front-runner, state Senator John Campbell.
Campbell, for his part, is not shy about aligning himself with Bush, even if they differ on issues such as immigration. ''Of the leading candidates, I'm probably with the president on more issues than anyone else," Campbell said.
Campbell has a sterling Republican pedigree. His great-grandfather was elected to the California Assembly in 1860 as part of Abraham Lincoln's Republican ticket. A young Campbell stuffed envelopes for Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign and revered Orange County native son Richard M. Nixon.
If no candidate wins a majority, the top finishers from each party will advance to a runoff in December.
The race is complicated by the candidacy of Jim Gilchrist, a founder of the Minuteman Project, which sponsors citizen patrols along the Mexican border. Running as a candidate for the American Independent Party, he threatens to siphon votes from Campbell, who has advocated building a fence along the border.
The contest is expected to come down to Brewer and Campbell. And Louis DeSipio, a political scientist at the University of California at Irvine, said the race is likely to turn on abortion. Campbell opposes abortion rights.
''There are divisions within the Republicans that reflect divisions in the national Republican Party," DeSipio said.
The state Democratic Party has endorsed a trial lawyer, Steve Young, but he is not given much of a chance. Only 27 percent of the district's voters are Democrats.
''The word on the street is a Democrat will never win this district," said Patti Clarkson, 42, a Democrat who supports abortion rights. ''I'm looking for the least damaging Republican."