Sen. Alan Cranston has seemingly had nine political lives. The question now is, will the California Democrat have a 10th? In each of his three previous successful runs for the United States Senate, Mr. Cranston has benefited to a degree from either weak opposition, good fortune, or both.
Now, as he gears up for what will probably be his toughest reelection fight yet, political pros are wondering whether history will repeat itself or, as national Republican officials believe, Cranston will be an easy mark whose defeat will help them hang onto their Senate majority in November.
For the time being, Cranston appears to be doing all right. His popularity had edged up in the polls from 1984, when his ill-fated run for the presidency drew attention to his liberal voting record and did little to improve his image among California voters.
More recently, he appears to have been temporarily boosted by turmoil within the ranks of the crowded field of Republicans trying to unseat him.
Most serious is the political fallout surrounding the recent indictment of Congresswoman Bobbi Fiedler, one of the Republicans' strongest candidates, on bribery charges.
Mrs. Fiedler and Paul Clarke, her top political adviser and close personal friend, were indicted last week on charges of allegedly offering $100,000 to the campaign of rival Republican candidate Ed Davis, a state senator, if he would drop out of the race for the Senate nomination.
Mrs. Fiedler, a conservative who was first elected to Congress after 1980 involvement in a drive against school busing, denies the charges and vows to continue her campaign. She has blamed her plight in part on political dirty tricks.
Arraignment of Congresswoman Fiedler and Mr. Clarke was scheduled for Jan. 27 in Los Angeles, but the judge postponed it until Feb. 7.
Fiedler and Clarke were indicted under an obscure, and untested, California law that carries a maximum penalty of three years in prison. Political analysts say that unless the congresswoman is vindicated quickly it will be hard for her to conduct a campaign. But they also speculate that the squabbling and confusion over the charges could damage the candidacy of the man who turned her in for the alleged bribe, state Sen. Ed Davis, the nominal front-runner in a crowded field of Republican candidates.
If the controversy lingers, political strategists say, it may ultimately hurt all eight GOP hopefuls by leading to a more fractious primary in June and diverting the candidates' thunder away from Senator Cranston and the issues onto themselves.
``It is going to preempt the agenda,'' says California political pollster Mervin Field. ``Basically what it does is leave a sour taste in Republican voters' mouths.''
``The issues have been sublimated to the portrayal of the Republican race,'' Mr. Field says.
There has also been some concern in Republican circles that no clear leader has yet emerged in the pack of candidates. Moreover, the past week has brought its share of turmoil on the GOP side, with several candidates stepping up their broadsides against other candidates' positions, violating the party's unwritten ``11th commandment'': ``Though shalt not criticize another Republican.''
All this has also revived speculation that Republican pressure might again be put on Peter Ueberroth to enter the primary as a sort of ``white knight'' to unite the party against Cranston. But Mr. Ueberroth, who was widely acclaimed for the way he organized the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles and is now commissioner of baseball, has denied interest in running.
Many Republican strategists, meanwhile, don't think things are so gloomy. Some expect the damage from the Fiedler case to be limited to the congresswoman herself, if she isn't cleared, or perhaps to her and state Senator Davis.
There is also a feeling that the current turmoil has come early enough in the race to have little effect on the primary. ``The majority of the voters are not even paying attention to the candidates right now,'' says a Los Angeles-based Republican consultant. ``We don't even know who all the players [in the race] are going to be yet.''
On the Democratic side, things are far more tranquil. Facing no primary challenger, Senator Cranston has quietly been adding to his war chest for the November election. So far he has raised about $3 million. He has also rebounded somewhat in state polls since his long-shot run for the presidency and is currently believed to lead his GOP rivals.
``My feeling is it is Cranston's race to lose, and this [the Fiedler case] makes it even more so,'' says Larry Berg, director of the University of Southern California's Institute of Government and Politics.
Cranston has benefited from a combination of serendipity and weak opposition before. In 1968, Republican Sen. Thomas Kuchel was thought unbeatable. But he was stunned in the primary by conservative educator Max Rafferty, whom Cranston then beat in the general election with the help of votes from moderate Republicans.
The senator won reelection in 1974 against ultraconservative H. L. Richardson, who also scared off some Republicans. In 1980, Cranston bested tax gadfly Paul Gann, who proved to be a weak campaigner.
This time around, however, many Republicans believe it will be different. They expect Cranston's age, 71, to be a factor. But they see his liberal voting record -- highlighted in the 1984 presidential campaign through such things as a call for a nuclear freeze -- will cost the senator a lot of votes among a state electorate that seems to growing more conservative.
``He is still one of the most vulnerable senators up for reelection,'' says Chris Kennedy of the National Republican Senatorial Campaign in Washington. The California race is one of five Senate seats it has targeted nationally in November.
In addition to Davis and Fiedler, other candidates for the Republican senatorial nomination include: US Rep. William Dannemeyer; Prof. Bill Allen of Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif.; Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich; former TV commentator Bruce Herschensohn; economist Arthur Laffer, whose theories inspired Ronald Reagan's tax policies; and US Rep. Ed Zschau.