Rusty Areias stood in worn jeans and workboots on a breezy Saturday afternoon at his Gustine ranch, watching the crowd of guests that had come to his home, Bird Ranch, to share in what he says will be an annual barbecue. This one, which attracted 150 guests, was held in support of his campaign for the 12th District seat in the California Senate.

Children raced by in painted faces and balloon hats; an oversized chicken boogied as a county-and-western band played in the background; rowboats bobbed in the cottonwood-lined, mossy San Luis River that winds its way through the expansive property. The task at hand, getting himself elected, was far from over, but his delight at having friends and family gathered in the acreage he calls home was plainly clear.

"This is where I find my peace," he whispered with outstretched arms.

Six years ago, things were not so peaceful.

In 1996, Areias narrowly lost his first bid for the Senate to liberal Republican Bruce McPherson. The vote was so close that it was a matter of recounts and weeks before McPherson edged Areias out by a scant one percent-a harsh defeat in a district where registered Democrats far outnumber Republicans.

On Nov. 5, Areias will once again put his credentials and reputation before voters, this time against a more conservative Republican, Jeff Denham, for a newly formed 12th District that includes parts of the counties of Merced, Madera, San Benito, Stanislaus and Monterey.

Does Areias have what it takes this time to convince the Democrat defectors of 1996 that he''s their man? Over coffee the day before his campaign party, he says he does.

"That was a difficult time in my life," he reflects as he sips a latte, referring to events surrounding an 85-year-old family-owned dairy and its ultimate demise shortly after the election. "I was distracted, and it drained me of any sort of emotional or physical energy."

Denham, an Air Force reservist who served in Iraq and Somalia, has focussed his political attack on the Areias family''s financial difficulties, faulting Areias for having made what he calls "bad financial decisions."

Denham''s campaign literature accuses Areias of "a variety of poor personal, business and political decisions, all of which call into question his suitability to represent the region."

For the most part, the Republican has limited his campaign to this one personal issue. Areias'' positions on state policy questions do not appear to have found their way into Denham''s crosshairs. At press time, Denham was unavailable for comment.

Areias supporter Mary Lewis, sipping bottled water under the trees that canopy Areias'' ranch, says Areias'' financial difficulties have reinforced his connection with voters. "He''s been through rough times like most of us, so he truly understands," she says.

John and Debby Baker echoed that sentiment. "It really does humanize him," they said over a guitar''s strum.

Denham, owner of a Salinas-based plastics company, has also taken issue with the fact that Areias sold water rights to buyers in Southern California in an attempt to bail out the family business instead of keeping it in the hands of local farmers.

Areias responds that the sale was necessary in order to pay back creditors. "They all got 100 cents on every dollar," he says (excepting Uncle Sam, to whom he makes monthly payments).

"We really tried to go local," he says of his family''s sale of water rights. But Southern California offers more than doubled local offers. "I needed to do the right thing and pay back all of those people."

Dairy difficulties aside, supporters say Areias is the only candidate who has any viable chance of getting things done in Sacramento. As assemblyman for over a decade, Areias enjoyed backing by Republicans and Democrats alike when it came to getting legislation passed. He also served on the California Coastal Commission for close to five years, and has been director of the California Department of Parks and Recreation since 1999.

Denham, who has never been elected to public office, recently scored when Stanislaus and Merced County Farm Bureaus endorsed him over local boy Areias. Denham''s campaign manager said in a recent statement that it was because constituents were angered over the water rights issue.

Ironically, Areias was able to snag support out of Denham''s hometown with endorsements from Salinas Mayor Anna Caballero, as well as several Monterey County supervisors and Salinas City Council members.

Democratic Assemblywoman Barbara Matthews, whose district overlaps the 12th Senate District, soaked up some sun and did a little re-election politicking of her own at Areias'' ranch. She says Areias is the one to address the district''s issues. "The fact of the matter is that Rusty has the experience, the know-how and the background to start off running from the day he comes through the door."

Apparently, Areias is still able to draw support from across the aisle. A supporter who declined to be identified because of his position in the Republican party, sitting on the fence at Areias'' ranch, said he will support the Democrat.

"If Denham was running for city council or school board, that''d be one thing," he said. "But he''s out of his league here."

Areias lists the county''s housing shortage as a pressing issue. "Salinas'' housing density is more than that of Manhattan," he says. He has been walking precincts in East Salinas with Mayor Caballero in an effort to see where density problems exist. He touts Proposition 46-a $2.1 billion housing bond proposal-as a way to help finance his plan "to bring in the best housing experts I can find. We''ll roll up our sleeves and start working on a solution."

For the San Joaquin Valley, Areias'' most provocative idea is a stated commitment to high-speed rail, which he envisions as a way to connect the isolated area with "the rest of the world."

Standing near his home, Areias says he draws strength from this ranch, which is directly adjacent to the property his family lost four years ago. An enormous fig tree blocks Areias'' view of that property, for the most part. "It just breaks my heart to see," he says.

Areias, who takes pleasure in such things as roasting hard-to-find green coffee beans, says politics aside, his private passion comes down to cheeses. "I want to do for cheese what Bob Mondavi did for wine," he dreams. "Pair that with a glass of bold burgundy or a big cabernet. Now that''s life."

For now, life for both Areias and Denham comes down to this campaign. Denham, according to his campaign literature, is hoping to "enjoy substantial crossover voting from traditionally conservative swing Democrat voters." Areias is counting on his years of hands-on experience to make the difference-this time around.

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