California Senate race could have a plot twist. Peripheral factors may tip outcome against Cranston

Maybe . . . just maybe, California could provide the political shocker of Election '86. Sen. Alan Cranston (D) of California remains heavily favored to hold his seat, for which he is being challenged by US Rep. Ed Zschau (R) of California. In fact, Paul Kirk, the Democratic Party national chairman, calls California ``safe.''

Others, however, don't agree that the outcome is so clear cut. There is an unusual political synergism at work here this year that could greatly depress the Democratic vote and boost the turnout for challenger Zschau.

David Chagall, a political analyst and writer in Los Angeles, says bluntly: ``Zschau will win.'' Many politicians are looking at the race too narrowly, he contends.

Pollster Mervin Field observes that there are a number of factors that may be exaggerating Senator Cranston's support in public surveys. That could make the race much closer than most people expect.

Several elements make analysts uneasy about this race. Each of them demonstrates that no campaign, no matter how well run, can control every factor.

For example, there is the statewide vote on whether to return Rose Bird as the chief justice of the California Supreme Court. Polls indicate that a majority of voters want the chief justice out; they hold her responsible for the reversal of most capital-punishment sentences since she became chief justice.

The Rose Bird question, Mr. Chagall says, will bring out thousands of staunch conservatives, and most of those conservatives will probably also vote for Zschau, even if only as an afterthought.

Then there's the English language question. Voters are being asked to decide whether English should be declared the official language of California.

That also has the public stirred up (most are in favor, polls show), and it will also swell the conservative turnout.

Meanwhile, there's little for Democrats to be excited about. Tom Bradley's campaign for governor appears to be going nowhere.

Blacks and Hispanics, who might normally be expected to rally around Los Angeles Mayor Bradley's campaign, see him as a likely loser. They feel let down. Thousands of them will skip voting, it is felt, and those will be lost votes for Cranston.

Those three factors alone would be enough to worry the Cranston camp. But that's not all -- not by any measure. Here are some other concerns for the Democratic senator:

Mr. Field, director of the California Poll, says total voter turnout this year will be ``perhaps the lowest in modern times.'' He expects no more than 8 million out of 17.6 million adults to go to the ballot box, or less than 50 percent.

``A low turnout helps Republicans, because Republicans have a better record of going to the polls,'' Field says.

Chagall points to another problem for Democrats that is little understood by the public. This year there is a lack of ``street money.''

Street money comes from political campaign funds and goes into the pockets of some church leaders who cooperate in getting out the Democratic vote in their minority districts, says Chagall.

This year there isn't as much money available for this purpose, and the Democratic vote could slump as a result.

And there is one more thing for the Cranston camp to fret about: the Reagan factor.

President Reagan could do in one day of campaigning what Zschau has been unable to do -- rally the Republican troops.

Currently, Zschau has the support of only 65 percent of all Republican voters, according to polls. That's well below the traditional level of support, which ranges from 80 to 85 percent.

Before Tuesday's voting, the President will make two appearances with Zschau in Orange County, the bastion of California Republicanism. Just a couple of photographs of Ronald Reagan with his arm around Zschau, indicating that ``Zschau is my man,'' may be all it takes to bring home those Republican voters.

Field says that Cranston can hardly rest easy. Traditionally, pollsters have a tough time measuring the vote in California. ``We never do a good enough job,'' Field says. Polls tend to exaggerate Democratic turnout.

Because of this difficulty, ``in California a Democratic candidate has to be ahead five or six points to be favored on election day,'' Field explains. Yet some polls have shown the race closer than that.

Most analysts say Cranston remains the favorite. But they add that his is hardly the ``safe'' seat Democratic headquarters claims it is.

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