The founder of a noted civilian border-watch organization once branded by President Bush as replete with “vigilantes” has forced a run-off election with a favored Republican for a U.S. House seat in California.

James Gilchrist, head of the upstart Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, which deploys volunteers along U.S. borders to watch out for illegal immigrants, took 14.4 percent of the vote in Tuesday’s special election for the open 48th Congressional district as a candidate of the American Independence Party.

Gilchrist’s showing was surprisingly strong against conservative former state Sen. John Campbell, who received 46 percent of the votes cast. The reason Gilchrist poses somewhat of a danger to Campbell is because he is likely to split the conservative vote when ballots are cast in December, analysts say. Gilchrist managed to tap into deep voter discontent over illegal immigration.

“To repeat a quote from the Revolutionary War: I have not yet begun to fight,” Gilchrist said of his showing. “I think I can win this. It’s just a matter of informing the public who I am and what I can do.”

Campbell’s moderate GOP colleague, former state Assemblywoman Marilyn Brewer, finished with 16.7 percent, Reuters reported. After Gilchrist came Democrat Steve Young with 9 percent of the vote.

Under California election rules, the top vote-getter in each political party has the opportunity to participate in the run-off election. That means Libertarian Party candidate Steve Cohen and Green Party candidate Bea Tiritilli also will be in the contest, said Reuters.

Candidates are vying for a U.S. House seat vacated by Rep. Christopher Cox, a Republican tapped by Bush to head the Securities and Exchange Commission.

For his part, Campbell carries a distinct advantage into the December election. Not only has he been endorsed by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger – himself a vocal critic of illegal immigration – but he is a successful former car dealer seeking to represent a mostly affluent Orange County population that regularly votes.

Brewer, meanwhile, is hoping to tap into moderate Republicans, some Democrats and Independent voters to eke out a victory against Campbell.

All about immigration

One of the most divisive immigration issues is a Bush administration proposal to implement a “guest-worker” program. Under the plan, illegal aliens already in the United States could remain legally as long as they found jobs.

Critics of the program believe it is little more than an amnesty in disguise. Gilchrist and his supporters also favor much stricter enforcement of the nation’s immigration laws, such as broader scrutiny of American employers who hire illegal aliens and tougher border security.

The White House and its GOP supporters in Congress deny the president’s plan is an amnesty, and they point to the hiring of more Border Patrol agents in recent years as a measure aimed at improving security.

California is awash in illegal immigrations, prompting Gov. Schwarzenegger to speak out against it.

Schwarzenegger, a native of Austria, has noted he waited 15 years to get U.S. citizenship.

“There are people who have been waiting 20 years. I find it unfair to all of a sudden push the whole thing with undocumented immigrants and say they should immediately get citizenship,” he said.

Some voters were not sure of Gilchrist’s stance on other issues like abortion, taxes and the federal budget. But some believed his strong anti-illegal immigration position was enough.

“He’s got the strongest stance on the open border issue, and that’s what’s going to kill this country,” Julian Cangelosi, 69, told the Associated Press. He said he and his wife had planned to vote for Campbell but felt his stance on illegal immigration wasn’t strong enough.

“Campbell is OK, but Gilchrist is a one-issue person,” Cangelosi – who voted for Bush twice – told AP.

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Showdown at border?

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