LATINOS, who make up 1 in 4 Californians, face a pivotal year in their emergence as a political force in the nation's most populous state.
For years, the nation's fastest-growing ethnic group has been touted as an emerging electoral giant that could determine statewide elections.
This has been more myth than reality.
For one thing, despite their numbers, there are relatively few Latino voters in comparison to their numbers in the population. For another, Hispanics don't necessarily vote as a bloc for any one party or person.
This year, however, several events are converging that, even if Latinos don't vote homogeneously, could bring a large number of them to the polls - and thus may influence some key races, if they're close.
Given that California is home to 30 percent of the Hispanics nationwide, it will offer a window on how the politics of this rapidly growing ethnic group is evolving.
``There hasn't been a general election in California that has been as salient to the Latino community as this year,'' says Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Center at Claremont College in Claremont, Calif., a policy research institute.
Of interest to many Hispanics:
* The bid by state Sen. Art Torres (D) to be state insurance commissioner. The Los Angeles lawmaker is the first Latino to run for a statewide office since 1957 and would be the first to hold a statewide position this century.
He is running against state Assemblyman Charles Quackenbush (R) of the Silicon Valley area. The latest Field Poll showed the race tight, with Mr. Torres leading 34 percent to 30 percent. Mr. Torres can be expected to get most, but certainly not all, of the Latino vote.
Still, the race will pivot on the white vote. Thus it will be watched, not only to see how many Latinos turn out, but also what Anglo voters' attitudes are toward an Hispanic candidate.
* The so-called ``Save Our State'' initiative that would deny a wide range of public services, including access to public schools and nonemergency medical care, to illegal immigrants. Many Hispanic activists believe the measure reflects a pervasive anti-immigrant, even anti-Latino, feeling in the state.
They are working hard to defeat the measure, since if it passes, others may follow in other states.
There is far from unanimity in the Hispanic community about the initiative, though. Latinos generally oppose illegal immigration at about the same rate as other voters.
More conservative and well-established Hispanics are likely to vote for it. Even so, polls have shown that a larger percentage of Latinos dislike Proposition 187 than in the electorate at large.
* This will be the first major election in which previously undocumented immigrants in the state start to become eligible for citizenship under the federal amnesty program approved in 1986. Eventually, they will represent a pool of 1 million potential new voters.
Even with all these developments, there is little likelihood Latinos will exert too much influence in state politics this fall. They remain more of a force for the future than the present.
The main reason is one statistic: More than half of the adult Latinos in California are not citizens - the highest rate in the country. Only 20 percent of the adult Latino population in Texas, by contrast, is noncitizen.
Hispanic leaders attribute this in part to the number of young people and newcomers, as well as to the application process itself.
Even among those eligible to vote, though, turnout is not what it could be, despite perennial efforts to register and mobilize the community.
Throughout most of the 1980s, Latinos made up roughly 7 percent of the total vote in the state. That was not substantially different than the black vote, even though Hispanics outnumber African Americans in the California population today about four to one.
In 1992, Latinos accounted for closer to 10 percent of the votes cast - the ``first significant jump in 15 to 20 years,'' according to Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll.
And this year?
Certainly there are enough items of interest on the ballot to draw Latino voters, though it is an off-election year. Should they come out in large numbers, the question then becomes who might benefit.
Although not as solidly Democratic in their vote as blacks, Latinos tend to lean in that direction.
Traditionally, 55 percent to 60 percent have voted Democratic in statewide elections in California.
Bill Clinton received 65 percent of the Hispanic vote in 1992, versus 23 percent for then-President Bush and 12 percent for Ross Perot.
There are caveats. Some Hispanic activists in Orange County are urging Latinos to bypass voting for certain Democrats this time because they feel party regulars snubbed Hispanic candidates in the June primary.
One Democrat looking for a boost is state Treasurer Kathleen Brown (D) in her bid to unseat Gov. Pete Wilson (R). She could be a beneficiary if there is a big turnout.
``In a close race, that lump might matter,'' says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley.
``To the extent Latinos represent more than 10 percent of the electorate,'' concurs Mr. DiCamillo, ``she is benefited significantly.''