THE new year promises political excitement in conservative, scandal-weary Oklahoma, where voters will choose a governor, state representatives, and half of the state Senate.
Frank Keating, a candidate in the Republican primary for governor, predicts that the GOP will capture the state's highest office. He expects his party's share to grow to 40 seats from today's 32 in the 101-member House, and to 15 seats from 11 in the 48-member Senate.
``Oklahoma is a Republican state,'' Mr. Keating says. ``It just doesn't know it yet.''
Democrats are reserving comment for now. ``It's still pretty early in the race,'' says Richard Mildren, who is managing the gubernatorial campaign of his brother, Oklahoma Lt. Gov. Jack Mildren (D). But he admits expecting the election politics to be ``firecrackers.''
Oklahoma has been a Democratic stronghold since statehood in 1907. William Jennings Bryan, once hailed as ``the peerless leader'' of the Democrats, wrote the Oklahoma constitution.
However, conservative values and practices today put Oklahoma at the far right of - and perhaps beyond - the Democratic Party.
For example, 1 in 4 of the state's 3.2 million residents attends a church service more than once a week. Another 35 percent attend weekly, making Oklahoma 1 of the top 5 states in religious observance.
The Brady bill, which imposes a five-day waiting period on handgun purchases, is accepted by a majority here, though a smaller one than nationally. Any restriction beyond that is fiercely resisted, says Tom Cole, a political consultant working for the Keating campaign.
Gun control is the question men ask most frequently of Jerry Kobyluk, a farmer and former oilman who since February has traveled to every county seat twice in a 30,000-mile quest for the GOP gubernatorial nomination.
``They want to pack guns here in Oklahoma,'' Mr. Kobyluk says.
Women most frequently ask him about abortion. ``To me it's a very simple issue,'' Kobyluk tells them. ``I'm against it. I believe that life begins at conception.'' He says that ``99.9 percent'' of women have agreed with him.
Mr. Cole says a ``large majority'' of Republicans oppose abortion. As a whole, 56 percent of Oklahomans either oppose abortion or would limit it to cases of rape, incest, or danger to the mother's life.
Little wonder that Oklahoma has voted for the Republican presidential candidate nine times in a row. And within the state, Republicans have made inroads as well.
Democrats are 65 percent of registered voters, down from 82 percent in 1962. More tellingly, among voters under age 35, the breakdown is 47 percent Republican, 48 percent Democrat.
``There isn't any question that Republican strength is growing,'' Cole says.
The GOP won the governor's office for the first time in 1962 and has held it twice since. A Republican was elected to the United States Senate in 1968. Last year, Don Nickles (R) was reelected to the Senate with 59 percent of the vote - a record win for a Republican, Cole says.
This year, Republicans are heartened by two other things: Gov. David Walters and President Clinton.
Governor Walters, a Democrat, recently pleaded guilty in a plea bargain to a misdemeanor campaign violation. He announced he will not run again. Other prominent Democrats were sentenced in various ethics cases, and investigations were ongoing at several state agencies.
``Given the fact that we've got a governor who's dodging impeachment, clearly ethics are going to be a major issue for everybody,'' says Cole. Richard Mildren agrees. ``Certainly, integrity in government will be discussed,'' the campaign manager says.
Oklahoma has seen major scandals in government for four decades. In the 1960s, supreme court justices were convicted of bribery. In the 1970s, Gov. David Hall was arrested two days after leaving office and was later imprisoned. In the 1980s, a scandal involving county commissioners set a national record for the number of politicians sent to jail.
Because Democrats have run the government, Republicans say the corruption is largely their fault. But Cole admits: ``It's hard to say you're virtuous when you haven't been tempted.'' And a Republican, State Treasurer Claudette Henry, is also facing impeachment over allegations of embezzlement.
In the past, voters have chosen only to punish individual wrongdoers rather than expel an entire party in a ``structural'' change, Cole says. Furthermore, his research shows that most Oklahomans think corruption here is the same or less than elsewhere.
Even if the GOP fails to make an issue of corruption, ``Clinton will help the Republicans enormously,'' Cole says. Many of the president's actions - on gays in the military, for instance - were widely disliked here.
Richard Mildren points out, however, that no one can predict what Clinton's popularity will be when the election rolls around. ``All this is a long way away,'' he says.
Cole says state Democrats have moved to the right to avoid being called liberal, or even progressive. ``If an election is `a Democrat versus a Republican,' we lose. If it is `conservative versus liberal,' we win,'' Cole says.