Dana Rohrabacher speaks during a debate in 2008.

Dana Rohrabacher speaks during a debate in 2008. (FILE PHOTO / October 21, 2008)

Attendees may have been puzzled as to why Friday's congressional candidates' forum, hosted by the League of Women's Voters in Laguna Beach, wasn't attended by both candidates.

The missing candidate, incumbent Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa), asserts he never told organizers he was going.

While Rohrabacher, a candidate for the newly redrawn 48th District that spans Laguna, Huntington Beach, Newport Beach and Costa Mesa, did not attend, Democratic challenger Ron Varasteh was there.

"I never told them I was going to attend," Rohrabacher said. "Years ago, I participated in several forums by the League of Women's Voters and found them to be dishonest and biased, and I decided I would not ever be involved in the League of Women's Voters again."

He said he participated in the past on two occasions and found that they undermined his point of view and supported the liberal candidate. He also heard from his supporters that the group would not use their questions when asked for some from the public.

"Many of my Republican colleagues have had the same experience," he said.

League of Women's Voters local volunteer Jean Raun said she was under the impression that Rohrabacher would attend the forum.

She said when she was organizing the event, she called his office, which gave her dates he would be available. No one told her he would not be there, Raun said.

However, she did confirm that although the staff member seemed interested, that person did not say whether Rohrabacher would or would not attend.

"I didn't ever hear from him one way or the other," said Raun, 89.

Varasteh's campaign manager Carole Levers claims Rohrabacher signed a contract to participate in the forum. Levers said Rohrabacher was "obviously embarrassed" and she didn't know "what the real reason was for not attending the debate."

Raun said she had no contract from Rohrabacher.

"I have a copy of the contract I got from Varasteh; I did not get one from Rohrabacher," Raun said.

In regards to bias, Raun said the forum was objective with a Republican and a Democrat screening questions. She said she's probably organized 40 forums in her career and has never had a candidate not show up.

"We're nonpartisan. We take stands on things after study," she said of the league. "We don't endorse candidates ever. I know Republicans and Democrats that are members of the league."

In response to interested voters who may have attended the forum hoping to hear his viewpoint, Rohrabacher said he has made an effort to get to know locals.

"A [Laguna] family just a week ago opened up their home and invited neighbors over," he said.

He also said he's had open houses in Laguna Beach.

Varasteh said he was under the impression they would debate.

"I probably would not have attended and I certainly would not have spent countless hours promoting the event at every venue we attended for the last several months, promising everyone we met a lively debate," Varasteh said in an email.

Rohrabacher said he does not want Varasteh to consider his decision not to attend a slight.

"I think it would be nice to have a debate just to get to know him," he said. "I understand he's an activist. I'm sure he has strong beliefs that make a very nice debate."

He said he hopes Varasteh reaches out to him so they can have a public exchange of views at a neutral location.

joanna.clay@latimes.com

Twitter: @joannaclay