IN what will be a marquee event of the 1992 political season, a long and deep-pocketed list of candidates is lining up to run for one of two US Senate seats from California - the first time both have been open the same year in state history.
California is responding to the historic event the way you'd expect California to - with several big-name candidates, lots of cash, and at least a whiff of celebrity.
There is Sonny Bono trying to be taken seriously as something other than Cher's sidekick; Republicans beating up each other in violation of Ronald Reagan's 11th commandment, thou shalt not criticize another Republican; former baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth playing the role of a GOP Mario Cuomo, maybe running but then not; and enough answers to the state's economic woes to fill a Tsongas manifesto.
Some analysts think the two contests could consume $50 million to $100 million, nearly the gross national product of Barbados. They will also be consuming a lot of interest in Washington, D.C.
With each party currently holding one seat, Republicans and Democrats are scrambling to claim both positions in their fight for control of Congress. "It is a unique year," says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the Claremont Graduate School. "Nobody has a lock on anything."
The dual contests come about because of the retirement of Sen. Alan Cranston and the election of Pete Wilson as governor in 1990. Mr. Wilson appointed John Seymour, a state senator from Orange County, to fill his US Senate seat, which will be contested again in 1994.
Mr. Seymour faces a formidable task in being reelected to the remainder of Wilson's term. From the start, conservative Republicans were upset with his appointment because of his switch to support of abortion rights and his opposition to discrimination against people with AIDs. In the June 2 primary, the GOP moderate will be challenged from the right by university professor Bill Allen and from the far right by Rep. William Dannemeyer.
Despite the opposition, political analysts give Mr. Seymour, a prodigious fund raiser, a good chance of winning the primary.
The November fight may be a different matter. Although he has been in office 14 months, Seymour is relatively unknown. He is trying to overcome the anonymity with TV spots, one of which portrays him as a Washington outsider in a year when incumbency is as popular as a dental drill.
His likely Democratic opponent would be either former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, who has high name recognition from her narrow gubernatorial loss to Wilson, or state Controller Gray Davis. Handicappers give the early edge to the moderate Feinstein.
A late entrant, Joseph Alioto, son of a former San Francisco mayor, could siphon off votes from Feinstein's home base.
No less complex is the field in the run for the six-year seat. Here, too, Republicans are crossing ideological swords, with former Los Angeles TV commentator Bruce Herschensohn in the conservative camp and Rep. Tom Campbell more of a moderate. Somewhere in-between is Mr. Bono, the mayor of Palm Springs.
Although inexperienced in statewide campaigns and little known in southern California, Mr. Campbell, a Stanford University economist-turned-politician, appeals to the moderate, yuppie constituency of former Silicon Valley Congressman Ed Zschau and has a hefty war chest. Mr. Herschensohn sees Campbell as a Democrat in Republican clothing.
"California is a replay of the national struggle between conservative and moderate Republicans," says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley.
As for Mr. Bono, no one knows whether to snicker or take him seriously. He has surrounded himself with experienced handlers and is a household name.
On the Democratic side, Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy is the best-known
candidate and early front-runner. A Los Angeles Times columnist recently referred to him as a "short-sleeved shirt" in the haberdashery of politics - "reasonable, comfortable, anything but hip."
The substantial lead he enjoys in early polls will no doubt lessen as his two principal rivals, Reps. Barbara Boxer and Mel Levine, pick up their campaigns.
The Ivy Leaguer Levine is the least-known but best-financed politician in the race, with $4 million in the bank.
Liberal on social-environmental issues but more moderate on foreign policy, he has been trumpeting his support of the Persian Gulf war.
Congresswoman Boxer, whose liberal agenda has included fighting offshore oil drilling and wasteful military spending is, like Feinstein aggressively courting woman voters, and hopes to be the popular alternative to two male Democrats in the primary.