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Congressional candidate Norman Solomon says he stands by his campaign mailer critical of opponent Stacey Lawson, rejecting assertions that the two full-color fliers are hit pieces.

"What's important is that they were factual," Solomon said Thursday.

<NO1><NO>Lawson, a San Rafael businesswoman and political newcomer, fired back. <NO1><NO>

"If my opponents want to resort to distortions and lies then that is their choice," she said. "Only people in the lead get attacked and only those who are trailing attack."

Lawson declined to characterize Solomon's fliers, saying she would "leave that to others."

One of the mailers, citing Lawson's acknowledged failure to vote in eight of 12 elections from 2003-08, juxtaposes pictures of Lawson with former gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman and the fictional Pinocchio.

<NO1><NO>Whitman, a Republican who lost the 2010 gubernatorial race to Jerry Brown, had failed to vote for 28 years during her career as a business executive. She also spent $144 million of her own money on her campaign.

Lawson and Solomon are two of the 12 candidates in a wide-open race for the North Coast congressional seat, vacant due to Petaluma Rep. Lynn Woolsey's retirement.

Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, is widely regarded as the frontrunner in Tuesday's primary election that will send the two top vote-getters to a November runoff.

Solomon said he considers himself and Lawson as the leading contenders for second place.

A candidate's voting record is a legitimate issue, said Andy Merrifield, a Sonoma State University political science professor.

But linking Lawson to Whitman, who has "extraordinarily high negatives among Democratic North Coast voters," creates a "visceral impact" that qualifies the flier as a "hit piece," Merrifield said.

Political partisans, including Lawson supporters, had a stronger reaction.

"Shame on Solomon," said Kara Mills, vice chairwoman of the Sonoma County Young Democrats, a group that endorsed Lawson. "We don't need negative campaigns."

Jennifer Siebel Newsom, documentary filmmaker and wife of Lt. Gov. Gavin Newson, said: "It is always a disappointment when desperate candidates try to salvage their campaigns with smear tactics."

Newsom has endorsed Lawson.

<NO1><NO>Larry Fritzlan, a Mill Valley therapist also running for the congressional seat, said that negative campaigning is part of the reason "why 90 percent of us distrust Congress."

<NO1><NO>Solomon, a West Marin activist and author well known in progressive circles, disputed critics who said the mailers represented a lapse in his principles.

"A progressive principle is that we do not accept multi-millionaires buying elections," he said.

Lawson, who joined the race months after Solomon and Huffman, made a splash by raising more than $900,000, including a $100,000 loan to her campaign.

If not for her own wealth and ability to secure donations from wealthy friends, Lawson "would be a non-factor in this race," Solomon said.

He ranks third in campaign fund-raising with $630,000, behind Lawson and Huffman, the leader with $1 million.

Merrifield said that Lawson's fresh face, liberal politics and money have boosted her from dark horse to contender, with as much name recognition as Solomon.

Campaigns "go negative," he said, because candidates and political consultants agree that "it works more often than it doesn't."

Solomon declined to say whether any similar mailers will be sent prior to Tuesday's election, calling it a matter of confidential "campaign strategy."

His other four mailers made no mention of Lawson, he said.