San Francisco — For $5,000 a couple, you could have seen a rare live performance by Barbra Streisand -- proceeds to benefit the election campaigns of US Sen. Alan Cranston (D) of California and Democratic senatorial candidates in five other states. Or you could have attended a banquet with guest of honor President Reagan and master of ceremonies Charlton Heston -- an event that pulled in $1.5 million for US Rep. Ed Zschau (R), who is challenging Senator Cranston on Nov. 4.
Here in California, the name of the political game is fund raising. The old campaign hallmarks -- handshaking, kissing babies, and speaking to neighborhood church groups -- have all but vanished. And in the Cranston-Zschau contest there will be no face-to-face debates.
``Races are decided by who has the most money to spend on TV ads,'' says Bud Lembke, editor of a publication about California politics. ``If the money [of the two candidates] is evenly matched, then it gets around to questions of who has the most merit. But if the spending is one-sided, then the other side never even has a chance.''
``TV will do it,'' agrees Mervin Field, an independent California pollster. Political analysts point to a TV-advertising blitz by Mr. Cranston which had left the Zschau campaign in the dust by summer's end.
Reliance on television ads has been rising steadily across the nation during the past 20 years. But the trend is most evident in California, says Austin Ranney, adjunct professor at the University of California at Berkeley and author of a book titled ``Channels of Power.'' Some reasons for this:
California is so big -- geographically and in population -- that TV is the most effective way for a candidate to reach the most people.
Political parties in the state traditionally do not hold as much power as they do in the East. Because the parties' grass-roots networks are weak, ``it tends to be an every-man-for-himself type of politics in California,'' Professor Ranney says.
``Show biz-type politics'' is not surprising in California, given the state's Hollywood production centers and captivation with celebrities, Mr. Ranney notes.
Neither Cranston nor Mr. Zschau says he particularly likes the TV-dominated campaign. In the Cranston camp, says Kam Kuwata, the senator's press secretary, the joke goes that in California ``a political rally is two people gathered around a television set.''
While the senator has not talked face to face with voters as much as he would have liked in this campaign, he has held 75 town hall-type meetings throughout the state in the last two years, Mr. Kuwata says. The TV ads in the closing weeks of the campaign are intended to ``reinforce'' Cranston's record for the voter, he adds.
Zschau, too, laments all the time and money spent ``feeding the voracious eye.'' But his fund-raisers have paid for a TV ad campaign that last month began hammering away at Cranston's liberal record.
``You can decry TV, but you can't argue with it,'' says Sandra Conlan, Zschau's communication manager. She says last month's ads have brought Zschau within a few percentage points of Cranston in a race that is pivotal for the Republican Party's attempt to retain control of the Senate during the last two years of the Reagan presidency.
With at least $20 million expected to be spent in the Cranston-Zschau contest, a few people are raising warning flags about this and other races.
One concern is that candidates everywhere are becoming more and more indebted to their contributors.
``The public doesn't seem to connect all that money being spent on TV with what the candidate gives in return once he gets into office,'' Mr. Lembke says. ``Politicians all deny that money buys votes, but they admit it'll [el23l]buy access.'' He suggests putting limits on political contributions and expenditures, a reform that has ``gone nowhere'' in California.
Another flag was raised last week by the California League of Women Voters, which noted that the election season will probably end without one public debate between candidates for any of the top three offices of the state. Cranston announced recently he will not debate Zschau; Republican Gov. George Deukmejian (R) is not likely to debate Democratic opponent Tom Bradley; and no debate is scheduled between Mike Curb, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, and Democratic incumbent Leo McCarthy.
The league last week asked the incumbents to ``recognize their public duty'' and reconsider their decisions. ``Voter participation in California is already low,'' says Kay Mason of the state League of Women Voters. ``We are concerned that if candidates don't debate, no one will even bother going to the polls.''
But Republican political consultant Sal Russo says, ``There's not a very good tradition of well-covered, important debates in California. ``Debates are zero as an issue. No one votes for someone because he debates or not.''
Ms. Mason, however, cites the large number of editorials and letters to the editor that have appeared in newspapers up and down the state, urging public debates.