CALIFORNIA has taken a significant step toward making this the Year of Women in politics that has often been proclaimed but never quite achieved.
The victories of former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein and US Rep. Barbara Boxer in Democratic primaries for the United States Senate, coupled with victories by more than a dozen women in US House races, puts the state in the forefront of a possible major breakthrough for women officeholders in November.
Recent surprise victories by female candidates in US Senate primaries in Illinois and Pennsylvania, plus the fact that a record number of women are running for the House in other states, have prompted renewed predictions of major changes in Congress in 1992.
"This is a turning point," says Jane Danowitz, executive director of the Women's Campaign Fund. "Women are the major agents of change, and they are the candidates who are capturing the imagination of the electorate."
The Boxer-Feinstein victories make for some interesting match-ups in November. Ms. Boxer, a fiery liberal, will face conservative former TV commentator Bruce Herschensohn in the race for the Senate seat vacated by retiring Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston. Mr. Herschensohn narrowly defeated moderate Tom Campbell in what was viewed as a battle for the "soul" of the California Republican Party.
Ms. Feinstein will be seeking to unseat Sen. John Seymour, a GOP moderate, who was appointed to the Senate when Pete Wilson left the chamber to become governor of California. Two years of that Senate term remain.
In presidential balloting, California sent a sobering message to both President Bush and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. Although both won their respective primaries - Democrat Clinton over native son Jerry Brown - they nevertheless still face the challenge of Ross Perot.
Even though he wasn't on the ballot, the diminutive entrepreneur with the Texas-size wallet bested both parties' nominees in theoretical three-way matchups in California, as well as in several other states in which there was balloting Tuesday. He continues to draw strength from voters who like his independence, can-do persona, and Trumanesque bluntness.
Still, much of his popularity stems from disaffection with Clinton and Bush, which means if either can change his image, or if Perot blunders, the dynamics could change quickly.
"I've said all along that by mid-August the American people are going to be disappointed with three candidates," says Allan Hoffenblum, a Los Angeles-based Republican strategist.
Both Boxer and Feinstein were aided by the women's vote in their races - Boxer more than Feinstein.
Exit polls showed the congresswoman's vote was about 54 percent female and 45 percent male. The vote was more evenly split for Feinstein.
Like other women candidates around the country, both were helped by perceptions that they are agents of change and by anger by many that they are not better represented in Washington.
The two women drew strong support from abortion-rights advocates, even though the men they ran against are on the same side of the issue.
"The message to come out of this election was choice, change, and gender," says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the Claremont (California) Graduate School.
Boxer will clearly be trying to tap any "gender gap" in California in her ideologically divisive fight with Mr. Herschensohn. She likes to emphasize traditional liberal themes of women's rights, the environment, and reducing foreign military spending.
Herschensohn opposes environmentalism, likes a strong defense, and is against abortion. He scares some moderate Republicans.
Boxer and Feinstein will have to find out if two women running for the Senate scares some Californians.
In his battle against Feinstein, Seymour is likely to take a page from the campaign book of Mr. Wilson, who narrowly defeated the former San Francisco mayor in the gubernatorial race two years ago.
That means Seymour will stay away from women's issues and abortion-rights, a position he is a recent convert to, and instead stress taxes, Feinstein's record as mayor of San Francisco, and crime.
"I think it will be a repeat of the Republican strategy in 1990," says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California Berkeley. Seymour, though, isn't as well known or likely to be as well funded as Wilson was. He will also have to work to woo angry GOP conservatives.
Female candidates will be on the ballot in more than a dozen California congressional districts as a result of balloting Tuesday. They are guaranteed to increase the number of women in the 52-member delegation from three to at least six; feminist groups believe the number will be higher than that.