California's "Jungle Primary" System Gets Its First Test Today

Tuesday's special election in California's 36th District is a prequel to what will likely be the main event on July 12. If no candidate gets a majority of votes cast -- highly unlikely in the crowded 16 person field -- the top two vote-getters will advance to a runoff in the first test of the state's new "jungle primary" system.

The Frontrunners: Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn jumped into the race almost immediately after now-former Rep. Jane Harman announced in February she'd step down to head the Woodrow Wilson Center. Hahn and Harman are close, and while Hahn doesn't have the former congresswoman's official endorsement, Harman did provide her with a heads-up she was leaving. Hahn comes from a well-known political family -- her brother, James, served as the city's mayor from 2001 until 2005, and her father, Kenneth, was a county supervisor for forty years.

California Secretary of State Debra Bowen took a bit longer to officially decide, but since her entrance, the two women have been at the top of a very crowded pack in the all-party primary. Hahn quickly rolled out endorsement after endorsement of other Members of the state's Congressional delegation, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and even former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt. She's also garnered most of the labor endorsements in the race.

Bowen has worked to paint herself as the more progressive candidate in the race, particularly on environmental issues, and has been endorsed by Democracy for America, former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, and the Sierra Club.

There's been no public polling done in the race, and the one internal poll released by Bowen last month showed the two women tied with 20 percent apiece. Another sign both are waiting for overtime to pounce - neither has aired any television ads in the race. The California Democratic Party split on their own endorsement between the two, with Hahn grabbing the most support, but neither got enough votes to get the nod.

Third Time's A Charm? A third familiar name is also on the ballot - progressive activist Marcy Winograd. The high school teacher challenged Harman twice, maintaining that the moderate Democrat was not liberal enough, and particularly opposed her positions on Israel and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. She has grassroots support, but with the absence of Harman to attack, she hasn't gained much traction this time around. In Bowen's poll, Winograd was in fourth with just 6 percent support.

I've been ready for this my whole life! Injecting a bit of late humor into the race has been entertainment executive Dan Adler, who hired actor Sean Astin (of "Rudy" and "Lord of the Rings" fame) as his campaign manager. But it's Adler's head-turning ads that have been grabbing the spotlight in the race's final days - including a "Rudy" parody featuring Astin and an ad telling Asian voters to "Send a Mensch to Congress," pointing out that Adler is Jewish and his wife is Korean. Another web video features his son bragging to his friends, "My dad gets s**t done." The attention may have boosted Adler's name recognition, but he still faces long odds.

Oh, the Republicans... Because of the "jungle primary" nature of the race, the Republicans running have been almost afterthoughts. If the party had rallied around one candidate, he or she might have caught fire, but instead, even several strong local leaders have had their candidacies overshadowed.

Both Redondo Beach Mayor Mike Gin and Redondo Beach City Attorney Michael Webb -- who are good friends -- are vying for the nod, and in Bowen's poll, Gin actually took third with 8 percent. Wealthy businessman Craig Huey has put a half-million dollars of his own money in the race, which actually gave him the most cash on hand of any candidate. Still, it will be a surprise if any of the three can eclipse either Bowen or Hahn to grab a spot in the July vote.

Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. PT.