THE Great Succession War is on in California. Even though the state is still wiping its brow after an intense election campaign, it may now be heading into the most frenetic political period in its history.
The reason is an unusual convergence of events. With Sen. Pete Wilson winning the governor's mansion and Sen. Alan Cranston deciding not to seek reelection, California will have its two Senate seats up in the same year for the first time in history.
By that time, 1992, the state may also have seven new congressional seats to fill as a result of redistricting, and other House races will be competitive.
Moreover, because of the term-limits measure passed here last week, many state lawmakers will be looking to move up the political ladder, leaving their seats vacant and adding to the political whirligig.
``It's chaos,'' says Eileen Padberg, a GOP political consultant.
``It is unbelievable,'' says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, an analyst at the Claremont Graduate School. ``It almost feels like the state is on fast-forward.''
The outcome will help determine the shape of the country's largest congressional delegation. It will also, inevitably, lead to the rise of new political faces in California, which often sees its favorite sons and daughters move up higher later on.
Money will be a key to the succession scramble. With the two Senate races coinciding with a presidential election, tens of millions of dollars will have to be raised to feed the television maw.
``It is going to be a boom year for political junkies, a boom year for political consultants, and a terrible year for political contributors,'' says Kenneth Khachigian, a longtime GOP operative.
The first order of business will be for Mr. Wilson to appoint a sucessor to the Senate. By law, the appointee has to face the voters in the first general election, which is 1992, and again two years later, when the Wilson term expires. Thus the importance of deep pockets.
The last two United States Senate contests in California cost around $20 million. Republican Wilson and Democrat Dianne Feinstein spent $40 million in their gubernatorial battle.
Wilson has said little about whom he might appoint, other than it will be someone who is ideologically similar on major issues. That almost certainly means a supporter of abortion rights. Wilson favors the death penalty and opposes offshore drilling. In the Senate, he was a strong supporter of the ``star wars'' missile defense program and Israel.
Some GOP operatives are urging Wilson to appoint a woman or minority to the post. Such a move might help to blunt any gender-gap advantage Ms. Feinstein would have if she ran for one of the two Senate positions, and she has indicated that her life in politics isn't over.
High on the list of women mentioned are Carla Hills, President Bush's chief trade negotiator, and Rebecca Morgan, a state senator from Silicon Valley. Both are political moderates and Wilson friends, though Ms. Hills has never run for office and Ms. Morgan has little statewide experience. Also mentioned is Gaddi Vasquez, a Hispanic Orange County supervisor.
Wilson could appoint former US Rep. Ed Zschau, who narrowly lost a senate bid in 1986. Some strategists suggest, however, that it might be better to let Mr. Zschau run for Senator Cranston's seat and appoint someone lesser known to the Wilson post to build up visibility.
Several congressmen are mentioned as possible appointees: David Dreier of La Verne, who has a large cash reserve in the bank; Jerry Lewis of Highland; Bill Lowery of San Diego; William Thomas of Bakersfield; and Robert Dornan of Garden Grove.
Less likely are James Watkins, Bush's secretary of Energy, and Jack Kemp, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Conservative TV commentator Bruce Herschensohn may seek one of the posts.
Democrats have a deeper bench to choose from but that may mean more squabbling on the way to the election. Cranston's decision to retire at the end of his term, for health reasons, hasn't dramatically altered the Democratic maneuvering. He was considered vulnerable. But it has stepped up the timetable for those contemplating runs and expanded the list.
Feinstein is considered the odds-on favorite for one of the posts, if she should decide to run. ``She is the 400-pound gorilla,'' says John Whitehurst, a Democratic strategist in San Francisco.
Several congressional members seem poised to run for one of the seats, including Mel Levine of Los Angeles, Robert Matsui of Sacramento, and Barbara Boxer of San Francisco.
Former Gov. Edmund Brown Jr., now state Democratic chairman, is often mentioned, though he has been criticized for not doing more in the recent gubernatorial campaign. Other names surfacing: Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy; Controller Gray Davis; Frank Wells, president of Walt Disney Company; Mayor Art Agnos of San Francisco; and Bill Honig, California's superintendent of schools.