With nine days to go and more than $2 million poured in by party powerbrokers in the 16th Senate District special primary election, the claws have come out in the race between front-runners Leticia Perez and Andy Vidak.
Republican Vidak's campaign is on the radio and TV calling Perez a liberal pawn of Democrats in Sacramento.
Democrat Perez's camp is playing up Vidak's opposition to a minimum-wage increase, carefully cutting a clip of his words from a radio debate to make him sound less sensitive to the poor.
But observers say victory May 21 will come down to how many supporters each can get to the polls.
"It's a matter of turnout," said Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book, which follows state politics. "The Democrats haven't been doing so well in these special elections."
Conventional wisdom dictates that Republicans traditionally win in the turnout game. But data from the elections offices in the four counties with territory in the 16th District show Democrats have the numerical advantage with vote-by-mail voters.
Those records show 11,830 Democratic voters have returned their mail ballots while 10,776 Republicans have.
While those numbers don't necessarily show who got the votes, they triggered a bit of a confident swagger from Perez campaign manager Trent Hager.
Perez will collect the most votes, he said, and end up in a July 23 run-off with Vidak. There are three other primary candidates.
The vote-by-mail turnout numbers are about what Vidak expected when the race started, said his campaign spokesman, Tim Orman, and he's betting Hager is wrong about who comes out on top.
"I think it looks good for us," Orman said. "I think it definitely gets us in the ballpark of getting close to 50 percent."
Any candidate who gets more than 50 percent of the vote May 21 wins the seat outright.
Hoffenblum said Vidak has to win the primary outright or will lose the seat. He said in a head-to-head match-up with Perez -- minus the three other hopefuls -- Vidak will be swamped by the Democratic Party's large voter registration advantage in July.
Neither Hoffenblum nor Hager believes Perez will win the seat outright this month. To ensure a run-off, Hoffenblum said, Perez needs to get the district's large Latino population -- which leans Democratic -- to the polls.
"When the Latinos turn out in force, (Democrats) win. When they don't, they lose," he said.
Perez has raised $1.2 million, more than $889,000 of it directly from the state Democratic Party and the rest from its traditional allies -- chiefly state employee unions.
Vidak has pulled in only $679,357. Much of it comes from his peers in the agribusiness community.
But just less than 34 percent of that money -- $230,755 as of Friday -- was piped in from the Tulare County Republican Party. That group has been largely funded by Charles Munger Jr. of Palo Alto, a Stanford University particle physicist and son of a billionaire investor who helped bankroll last year's unsuccessful fight against tax-increasing Proposition 30 and an earlier, successful effort to create an open-primary system in California.
Munger's funding of the Tulare County GOP seems to counter claims by Vidak and his campaign that 95 percent of his money comes from inside the district. Vidak said he still counts that as district money.
"Pass-through or not, my money is coming from the district," he said.
Orman said when he judges where Vidak's money came from, he looks at the zip code of the contributor -- in this case the county-level Republicans.
The Tulare County Republican Party is headquartered in Visalia, which is outside the 16th Senate District boundaries being used for this race.
While there are three other candidates in the race -- Democrats Paulina Miranda and Francisco Ramirez and Peace and Freedom candidate Mohammad Arif -- they have raised no funds.
Perez and Vidak, however, have spent freely in the Fresno and Bakersfield radio and television markets. For the most part, those ads have been sunny pieces promoting the two candidates and their stances on issues.
But in the past week or so, those ads have gone negative, with Perez portraying Vidak as opposing a minimum-raise increase for workers while supporting a tax break for millionaires.
Both campaigns defended their ads as truthful while accusing the other side of unfair, misleading statements.
"Because the Vidak campaign has gone 100 percent negative, we have made a strategic decision to go 50/50," said Hager, Perez's manager.
A Perez ad contains an audio clip of Vidak speaking during a radio debate. Vidak's quote states, "Minimum wage...raising the minimum wage does nothing."
What Vidak said was, "Minimum wage...raising the minimum wage does nothing for someone who does not have a job."
Asked why her campaign cut off the end of Vidak's statement, Perez said it helps voters understand the difference between her and Vidak.
"It's important for voters to understand a distinction in policy, so that is what that is," she said.
A radio ad launched this week in the Bakersfield market more directly attacks Perez.
"Why is Senate candidate Leticia Perez running misleading campaign ads? Is it because Perez talks out of both sides of her mouth like the Sacramento power-brokers who control her?" the ad asks rhetorically.
Hager said the ad is factually incorrect and its tone is far more personal than Perez's.
"Campaigns that are behind go extremely negative," he said. "They're absolutely making it up."
One phrase in the ad triggers the biggest factual debate.
"Perez says she's against raising taxes, but she recently voted to hike income taxes on small businesses and sales taxes on working families," Vidak's ad goes.
Orman said it refers to Perez telling the Hanford Sentinel that she voted for Proposition 30 last November -- as a regular voter.
"I think it's informative. I don't think it's misleading," he said.
Perez said she has promised to not support an increase in taxes as a legislator but would send any tax increase to the voters for approval.
"While I personally would not vote to raise taxes, I support an effort like Prop. 30," Perez said.
With just more than a week to go, both campaigns are shifting focus to the streets.
"I have hired an army for Election Day to remind those Democrats who go to the polls that this is an important election," Hager said.
He said he has already locked in a team of 250 walkers for May 21.
Orman said the Vidak team will be "as big as we can afford."
He said Perez's financial advantage will allow her campaign to put more people on the ground on Election Day but Vidak's "can still work smarter than they can."