There are lots of perks that come with being governor of California.
With more people and money than any other state, the political throw-weight, at least on paper, is unmatched outside Washington. And as candidates begin lining up for this year's contest, there is one added allure. The job might actually be some fun.
With coffers brimming, there is money to spend - and the potential for doing the kinds of things that historians call a "legacy" as opposed to a "contribution."
"The next governor will have real money to do things, something that hasn't been the case in recent election years," says Steve Scott, managing editor of Sacramento's California Journal. "That gives you the tools to build something lasting,"
Still, most Californians aren't thinking any more about this November's election than they are about their Thanksgiving guest list. But the political establishment exhaled this week when Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) announced she won't run for governor. Her decision deprived the Democratic Party of a candidate that early polls pegged as the clear front-runner.
That leaves the race either wide open or with a slight tilt to Republican state Attorney General Dan Lungren. Those who see a Lungren advantage note that he's unopposed in his party, and therefore has a freer shot at the general election. He rated just behind Feinstein in a preference poll of registered voters done late last year by the Field Institute, they add.
If there was any doubt about the importance of California to the Democrats nationally, President Clinton settled that weeks ago by attempting to nudge Senator Feinstein into the race. That somewhat rare intervention by the White House underscored why the stakes, always large given that California accounts for 20 percent of the electoral votes needed to become president, are even larger in 1998.
The GOP has occupied the governor's office for 16 years, and this year's victor will preside during reapportionment following the 2000 census. That process is expected to add at least one seat to California's congressional delegation - already 12 percent of the US House of Representatives. It could also shift the balance of the delegation through the redrawing of district lines for six other seats - the Democrats only need 12 to end the Republican majority in the House.
But Feinstein would not be nudged. While being governor may be fun, getting there won't be. Feinstein said her reasons for not running were an "obligation to complete my term" and the fact that "campaigns in California have deteriorated to such a point that there is very little uplifting or constructive about the process." One longtime adviser said bluntly that Feinstein "dreaded" the idea of a bruising campaign for the party nomination, followed by an equally tough fight against Mr. Lungren.
The leading Democratic candidates for governor are Lt. Gov. Gray Davis and businessman Al Checchi. Former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta is now seen as a potential candidate, as is State Controller Kathleen Connell.
Except for multimillionaire Mr. Checchi, who is financing much of his own campaign, all the Democrats have been "frozen in place," unable to effectively raise campaign funds while donors waited to see what Feinstein would do, says pollster Mark DiCamillo of the Field Institute.
Checchi's long-term money advantage was lessened recently when a federal court threw out 1996 voter-approved campaign spending limits, essentially leaving no limits for statewide office.
One of the wild cards this year is the state's first open primary. Voters can choose their favorite candidate, regardless of their party registration, and some think there is potential for Republican crossover votes for Checchi given his business background with Northwest Airlines, Marriott Corp., and Disney.
While personality, organization, and funding may vary among the candidates, they all say education is a top priority. "Our campaign will promote a very aggressive public-education reform agenda," says Dave Puglia, campaign director for Lungren.
Mr. Davis has said the state is confronted with two major challenges: educating children for the 21st century and uniting California's diverse population. Checchi, meanwhile, has said his campaign would "put our schools first and make this state first again in education."
Even Feinstein has introduced a ballot initiative that would increase the state cigarette tax to fund smaller classes, among other things.
Despite the stakes of this year's race, Feinstein's noncandidacy could diminish voter interest. "It's another array of white men in gray suits," says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe of the Claremont Graduate University in Los Angeles. "She takes a lot of the sizzle out of the race."