Oakland, Cal.--IF YOU HOPE to understand the convoluted politics of California, you may need a computer or, at the very least, a sophisticated calculator.
The one certainty is that the stakes are enormous. The prizes here next year will include 54 electoral votes, one-fifth of those needed for the presidency, two Senate seats, seven new House seats and dozens of congressional and legislative seats that will be fiercely contested because of redistricting or the term-limitation measure passed last year or both.
There is also the possibility, although a long shot now, that California will move its presidential primary from June up to March in a move to make it far more influential, perhaps even decisive, in the choice of a Democratic presidential nominee.
The pressure is clearly greatest on the Democrats. The Republicans have won the last three gubernatorial elections and have carried the state for their presidential nominee six times in a row. Now because the Republicans have developed such a strong presidential-year base elsewhere, California has become a "must win" for any Democratic nominee.
In some respects, 1992 looks like a promising year for the Democrats here, at least at the level below the presidency. They should be at least even bets to win both Senate seats -- one to complete the final two years of Gov. Pete Wilson's term, the other to succeed the retiring and politically discredited Alan Cranston.
Dianne Feinstein, the former mayor of San Francisco who lost the gubernatorial election to Wilson, is the 800-pound gorilla of the Democrats and has chosen to run for what is called "the short seat" -- meaning against the Republican appointee to fill the Wilson chair, John Seymour. That leaves six Democrats planning to run for the Cranston seat -- former Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown, Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy, state Comptroller Gray Davis and Reps. Barbara Boxer, Mel Levine and Robert Matsui.
On the face of it, this appears to be a strong field. For all their successes, the Republicans have not yet developed comparable bench strength. But it wasn't difficult to detect nervous doubts among Democratic activists and operatives who gathered here for a state party convention the other day. They have a lot of history of missed opportunities in recent years.
Feinstein's decision to run for the Seymour seat was based largely on the likelihood she could capture the nomination without a serious and money-eating challenge and on the assessment that the colorless Seymour would not be a strong opponent even after two years as an appointee in the Senate. But Seymour is now facing a primary challenge of his own, from ultraconservative Rep. William Dannemeyer, that can prove a blessing in disguise by giving Seymour a chance to enter the general election campaign with an image as both a winner and more moderate than his views might justify.
Meanwhile, the prospect of a six-candidate field for the Cranston seat is raising the specter of Jerry Brown redux. Veterans of the political wars here seem almost unanimous in their view that Brown could win the primary -- there is no runoff -- with as little as 20 to 25 percent of the vote because of lingering support from his eight colorful and highly unorthodox years as governor. But they are also agreed he would have little chance in the general election because of his lingering image as Governor Moonbeam.
To no one's surprise, Brown is presenting himself in a whole new incarnation. Two years ago he put aside his disdain for party mechanics to become state chairman with the promise to spend the next four years building the California equivalent of a machine. But when the convention opened he resigned and declared: "Frankly, after two years of nuts and bolts, I'm tired of it."
Instead, he will run for the Senate as a champion of "economic populism" and will model his campaign after the success of Gov. Lawton Chiles of Florida by sharply limiting contributions. But Brown enters the campaign with 40 percent negatives.
The picture may change in the 11 months before the filing deadline. Gray Davis may decide to compete against Feinstein for the short seat. It would be no surprise if one or more of the House members decide against running. If Brown were pitted only against Leo McCarthy and one other opponent, he would be no better than an even bet.
So if it is fair to say 1992 offers the Democrats great opportunity, it is equally fair to say they could fritter them away.