By JESSE McKINLEY
With competitive races in Congress a rarity in California, the unexpected availability of a seat here has set off a sudden and furious chase, with at least a dozen candidates and a mélange of political styles and personal storylines.
California's 10th Congressional District, a sprawling inkblot made up of a collection of suburbs east of San Francisco, has been represented since 1997 by Ellen O. Tauscher, a Democrat who resigned after being confirmed on June 25 to a top post in the State Department.
The field to succeed her includes the lieutenant governor, two state lawmakers, a decorated Iraqi war veteran who is openly gay and a former newspaper reporter. And that does not even include the Republican candidates in this Democratic-leaning district.
The crush of hopefuls, said Henry Brady, a professor and dean of the public policy school at University of California, Berkeley, might stem in part from the diversity of the district, which extends from the liberal Bay Area to more conservative territory inland.
"These seats don't come available very much, and the reason is very simple: geography," Dr. Brady said. "The Democrats are primarily on the coast, and the Republicans are in the Central Valley and the mountains, so it's very hard to build a competitive district. But this has the potential to be one."
The lieutenant governor, John Garamendi, is considered the early favorite to replace Ms. Tauscher. Mr. Garamendi, a Democrat who had considered running for governor next year, said he opted instead for Congress in large part because of the abbreviated campaign. A primary, followed by a special election, to complete Ms. Tauscher's term must be held within 126 days of the governor setting the date. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued a proclamation Friday declaring Nov. 3 the date for the special election.
"I thought, How am I going to spend two valuable years of my life?" said Mr. Garamendi, 64, who previously served as the deputy secretary of interior in the Clinton administration as well as the California's first elected insurance commissioner. "Am I going spend two years dialing for dollars, or am I going to spend four months out ringing doorbells and campaigning person to person and the other 20 months working on issues?"
Mr. Garamendi's principal challengers among the Democrats, some polls show, are State Senator Mark James DeSaulnier and Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan. Both were elected to their current posts last fall.
Mr. DeSaulnier, 57, is a former mayor, city councilman and assemblyman, who says his career comes in spite a devastating personal experience with politics: a scandal involving his father, Judge Edward J. DeSaulnier Jr., who was removed from the bench of the Massachusetts Superior Court and disbarred in 1972 after being accused of rigging a sentence for the Mafia. The older Mr. DeSaulnier was never charged with a crime but was disgraced nonetheless and committed suicide in 1989.
"I've been very affected by my father's journey," said Mr. DeSaulnier, who worked as a restaurateur before running for office. "And I've loved my public life."
Ms. Buchanan, 56, says she has practical and personal experience including raising five children and a successful career as an executive at a dental company. Like several of her Democratic opponents, Ms. Buchanan says the election of President Obama helped convince her that now was a prime time to run, despite her serving less than a year in the Assembly.
"I think it's a good time to be a Democrat," she said. "I believe many of the challenges we face are going to be solved in Washington, D.C."
The rest of the Democratic field is not as well known, though one candidate has attracted some national attention: Anthony Woods, a 28-year-old graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and a veteran of the Iraq war who was awarded the Bronze Star for two tours of duty. Shortly after his return from combat, while at Harvard working toward his master's degree, Captain Woods told military superiors that he is gay, resulting in an honorable discharge.
While considered a long shot for the Congressional seat, Mr. Woods would be the first openly gay black man in Congress, though he has been careful on the campaign trail to trumpet more than his sexuality.
"The first thing I talk to voters about is their priorities, universal health care and economic security," he said. "I'm not hiding who I am, but they're just as interested in talking about the issues as I am."
Others in the Democratic field include Tiffany Attwood, a local planning commissioner and self-described "mom who plays soccer" do not call her a soccer mom and Adriel Hampton, a former reporter for The San Francisco Examiner who said he was entering politics because of a "Howard Beale moment," referring to the fictional insane anchorman from the 1976 film "Network."
"I got tired of being objective," Mr. Hampton said.
Republicans have usually been solidly trounced by Ms. Tauscher since she first won election in 1996, including last year, when she won 65 percent of the vote over the Republican candidate, Nicholas Gerber, who won 31 percent. Mr. Gerber has said he might consider running again.
Other Republican candidates include David Harmer, a lawyer and the son of a former California lieutenant governor, John Harmer; and Catherine Moy, a city councilwoman.
Dr. Brady, of the University of California, said the Democrats would probably retain Ms. Tauscher's seat, though the primary could be bruising. Mr. DeSaulnier, a divorced father of two boys, has already turned his attention to Mr. Garamendi, accusing him of not living in the district he seeks to represent.
It is an accusation that Mr. Garamendi, who says he lives in Walnut Grove on the district border, does not completely deny.
"My front yard is in the district," he said. "My bedroom is not."