California Prepares for Two-Ring Political Circus in 1992 Election

THE tilt-a-whirl of California politics is beginning to dip and roll for the next election cycle - a ride that may turn out to be the most intense in state history. With both United States Senate seats open and seven additional House races next year because of redistricting, California is bracing for a political season that will likely set new records for campaign spending and perhaps for numbers of candidates running as well.

Already, some of the state's biggest names - some familiar, some not - are emerging. The outcomes will help shape the composition of Congress in the 1990s.

``There has been a glass ceiling at the top for a long time,'' says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the Claremont Graduate School.

Never before in state history, and rarely in American, have two Senate seats been open in the same year. It is a quirk caused by the election of Republican Sen. Pete Wilson as governor in November, which opened his Senate seat, and by the decision of Sen. Alan Cranston, for personal and political reasons, not to seek reelection.

Mr. Wilson appointed fellow Republican John Seymour, a former state legislator, to replace him. Because of state election laws, Mr. Seymour would have to face the voters next year as well as in 1994.

Two expensive elections in two years might seem enough to shoo away even the most ambitious politician. That likely won't be the case. Seymour already has one GOP challenger - US Rep. William Dannemeyer, an Orange County conservative.

His decision to take on Seymour sets up a clash between the conservative and moderate wings of the party, something that riles many GOP stalwarts. But most analysts say the challenge will only help the little-known Seymour: He will be forced to set up a statewide campaign organization earlier and will garner greater name recognition. Running against a conservative will also highlight his moderate views, the argument goes, aiding his general-election chances.

On the Democratic side, former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, fresh from her surfboard-thin gubernatorial loss to Wilson, is seeking the ``short'' Senate seat. Her early announcement was designed to preempt the Democratic field. That may or may not work.

Recognition factor

Her historic bid to become California's first woman governor gave her statewide campaign experience and generated widespread enthusiasm, not to mention a formidable donor's list. But so many Democrats are lining up for the other Senate seat that she seems likely to face competition.

Two prominent Democrats known to be thinking about a run for the Senate, but who haven't yet announced which seat they would seek, are state Controller Gray Davis and US Rep. Mel Levine of Los Angeles.

``I think it is going to be a competitive primary,'' says Danny Goldberg, a Democratic activist. ``I don't think anyone will be given the seat.''

Four Democrats in race

Certainly no one will be given Mr. Cranston's seat. Already, four Democrats have announced intentions of inhabiting it: Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy, US Reps. Robert Matsui of Sacramento and Barbara Boxer of San Francisco, and former Gov. Edmund (Jerry) Brown Jr. Mr. Brown, who has a habit of reinventing himself, has come up with a new persona for his bid. The man who most recently served as chairman of the state Democratic Party, with the task of raising large sums of money for the party, is casting himself a s a grass-roots populist who won't accept large campaign contributions.

In a crowded Democratic primary Brown would be a formidable candidate. But many analysts believe he would be trumped in a general election against a mainstream Republican. The GOP pines for a crack at him.

``If he is the nominee, it will prove that God is a Republican,'' says GOP strategist Sal Russo.

Moderate Republicans mentioned as possible contenders include former US Reps. Ed Zschau and Rep. Tom Campbell of Palo Alto. Conservative names that surface: US Reps. David Dreier and Robert Dornan, and TV commentator Bruce Herschenson. Spending for the two Senate contests could top $100 million - a big amount even by California standards. Still, pollster Mervin Field says: ``There is always a new clump of financial trees to shake.''

In addition to the seven new US House seats that will be created by population growth, several others will likely be open because of retirements and other factors. The passage of a term-limit initiative last year has many state lawmakers looking to move up into these jobs.

Presidential prospects

If all this isn't enough, there will be the presidential campaign - for which there is early maneuvering going on. California Democrats, frustrated over the state's lack of influence in choosing a presidential nominee because of a late primary, are pushing a new idea: early caucuses.

The plan is to elect about one-third of the state's delegates at caucuses in March and most of the rest in the June primary.

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