By Mark Walker
February 21, 2012

Rep. Brian Bilbray's campaign in the hotly contested 52nd Congressional District is facing equally strong challenges from the right and left.

That was one of the take-aways after an hourlong candidates forum on Tuesday, where he and three challengers sparred publicly for the first time.

Immediately after the Country Club of Rancho Bernardo event, independent voter Wes Nelson said he was impressed with conservative Republican businessman and political newcomer John Stahl, one of Bilbray's two Republican opponents.

"I though Stahl did an excellent job," said Nelson, a Carmel Mountain Ranch resident. "I didn't know much about him before today, but his answers were impressive."

Stahl and fellow Republican and physician Wayne Iverson, along with Democrats Lori Saldana and Scott Peters, are challenging Bilbray for the seat viewed as one of California's most competitive congressional races.

Stahl, a businessman and former Raytheon executive, told the more than 120 people at the forum that he would move to cut congressional pay, reduce the size of his office staff and refuse a congressional pension.

The former Navy aviator also vowed during his no-nonsense delivery to conduct monthly town hall meetings and establish neighborhood and business advisory groups.

"We need a new breed in Congress," said Stahl, who is refusing to accept any contributions from political action committees. "My deal is, we have to get back to citizen legislators. We have to get back to common-sense solutions."

Bilbray pointed to what he said was a strong record of working across the aisle on legislation, his tough stance on immigration and support for regulatory relief for the region's biotech industry as key reasons why he deserves re-election.

"San Diego is a powerhouse of medical research, and it's something that we ought to be looking at for government regulation changes," he said. "When government stops our researchers from being able to have businesses in the life sciences, we're not only stopping jobs, we're losing lives."

Bilbray's vulnerability in the 2012 election stems from the newly drawn 52nd District, which stretches from Coronado to La Jolla and then inland to the Poway area.

It was carried by Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election. Party registration is nearly evenly split and includes nearly a third of the electorate registered as independents.

Further complicating matters is a new state law that mandates that only the top two finishers, regardless of party, move on from the June 5 primary.

Those factors drew Peters, a former San Diego city councilman and current Port of San Diego commissioner, into the race.

He's leading in the race for Democratic Party endorsements and campaign cash over Saldana, a former state assemblywoman.

Peters repeatedly stressed his ability to work across party lines.

"Let's get the right person, and stop worrying about party," he said. "I have a record of solving problems."

He dismissed Bilbray as a longtime Washington insider who is trying to paint himself as a change agent.

"You know that's not going to happen," Peters said. "If you select me to go to Washington, I will work for you, I will work for San Diego ... not for special interests and not for my own personal gain."

Saldana repeatedly pointed to her record on environmental issues and support for veterans and military families.

She stressed the need to preserve Medicare and Social Security, and provide more investment in education. She also called for incentives for energy efficiency and vehicles that run on alternative fuels.

"We are transitioning from a decade of war and combat to a new era where we need to reinvest in the home front," she said. "That's not a partisan issue."

Iverson, the third GOP candidate, was not in attendance because organizers were unaware of his candidacy, said Marty Judge of the Conservative Order of Good Government, which sponsored the forum.

In their most recent Federal Election Commission campaign finance filings, Bilbray had the most cash, with $561,000 in the bank at the end of 2011.

Stahl had a little more than $300,000, almost all from his own pocket.

Peters had about $231,000, while Saldana reported having just under $37,000. Iverson had a little more than $61,000, almost all self-donated.