Los Angeles, Calif. -- DEMOCRATS' CHANCES nationally for 1992 may look glum, but here in California, they're having visions of a big year in the state's unusual opportunity to elect two U.S. senators at the same time.
Along with the vacancy for a regular six-year term resulting from Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston's decision not to seek re-election, a special election is slated to fill the last two years of the unexpired Senate term of Republican Pete Wilson, elected governor last November. In both races, the Democrats see a sharp split in Republican ranks, deepened by Wilson himself, as their ticket to a double victory.
With a moderate in the Wilson mold competing against a strong conservative in each Senate primary, the Democrats are counting on a war going on between Wilson and GOP conservatives in Sacramento and within the state party to make whoever wins vulnerable to the Democratic candidate in each race.
The Democratic problem, however, is the spectacle of five Democrats playing musical chairs over which seat they will seek -- the six-year or the two-year slot -- in the Democratic primary next June. There actually were six Democrats playing, until former Gov. Jerry Brown decided recently to run again for president.
The man Wilson picked to replace him in the Senate until the 1992 special election, John Seymour, is opposed in the GOP primary for the two-year term by one of the most ultraconservative members of Congress, Rep. William Dannemeyer. And Wilson's choice for the six-year term, Rep. Tom Campbell, is running in the primary against ultraconservative television commentator Bruce Herschensohn.
These lineups provide ready vehicles for conservative Republicans to express their dissatisfaction with the new governor of their own party without confronting him directly. "The right-wingers will take out their hostility toward Wilson on them," one California political veteran predicts.
The conservatives' ire toward Wilson began with his approval of tax increases to slash a record state deficit. More recently they are concerned he will accept Democratic-sponsored legislation protecting gays against job discrimination, a litmus-test issue on the right.
The party's state convention last week approved a resolution calling on Wilson to veto the bill. Also, a conservative bloc tried to wrest from the governor control of the party's large delegation to the 1992 Republican National Convention. This animosity could play out in the two Senate races if Seymour and Campbell are the GOP nominees, with Republican conservatives staying home on election day. To take advantage of this GOP dissension, however, the Democrats must first weather a primary fight for the six-year seat and an increasingly likely one for the two-year seat.
Brown's decision to run for the presidency leaves three Democratic contenders for the "long" seat, each with strengths. The front runner in the polls, based largely on name identification, is Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy. Rep. Mel Levine, however, is far ahead in fund raising with more than $3.5 million in the till, and Rep. Barbara Boxer may be the strongest and most active among liberal party activists.
For the "short" seat, it was believed for a time that former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein would be unopposed for the Democratic nomination, and she has been campaigning already. Now, however, state controller Gray Davis says he is "strongly inclined" to oppose her. He was California's top vote-getter in his last re-election and he points to polls indicating he would beat Seymour by a wider margin than would Feinstein.
The trick for the Democrats is to get through their own primary contests without the kind of intramural bitterness that already threatens unity on the Republican side.
Feinstein's campaign manager, Kam Kuwata, suggests that "the Republicans could be as divided in California next year as they were nationally in 1964," when the ideological split between the conservative forces of Barry Goldwater and the liberal-to-moderate supporters of Nelson Rockefeller doomed Goldwater's already slim chances against President Lyndon Johnson.
Right now, the deepening GOP split looms as much of an obstacle to twin Senate victories for the party here next year as do any of the five aspiring Democrats for the two Senate seats.