ANAHEIM — For more than a decade, the Democratic Party has been a sputtering also-ran in Orange County's political demolition derby. Little more than two years ago, the party's local chapter was flat broke, its executive director had quit and it didn't hold a single seat in the state Legislature or Congress.
Times have changed. Today, there's money in the bank, an energetic staff is on board and the Democrats even hold an Assembly seat in the county. Suddenly, the mood is upbeat, and the Orange County Democratic Party has started acting like the Avis of local politics: No. 2, but trying harder.
In that spirit, the party faithful kick the campaign machinery into gear for '92 with the Orange County Democratic Convention tonight and Saturday at the Anaheim Hilton and Towers.
Organizers hope to draw upward of 1,000 people for the event, in part because of an impressive list of headliners--the party's five top candidates for the pair of U.S. Senate seats up for grabs in California this year.
Aside from the usual backslapping and speech-making, the convention features a straw poll to pick a Senate and presidential favorite (four years ago, delegates threw off their image as moderates and selected the Rev. Jesse Jackson).
In addition, the party conducted a telephone poll of 460 registered Democrats in Orange County, yielding an avalanche of intriguing results.
Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton was favored by 20% in the presidential race, but double that number remain undecided. Former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas received 14.6%, while former California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. got 14.1%.
Former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein and Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy got the nod for the two Senate seats, getting about 50% each.
The poll also discovered that Orange County Democrats, like many voters nationwide, say the economy is the most important issue facing the country. Fifty-nine percent rated it first, followed by unemployment (12%), health care (5%) and the federal budget deficit (3%). Asked if they're better off now than they were four years ago, 39% of the Democrats polled said they were worse off, 32% said their fortunes were the same and 7% felt they were better off.
Whether such opinions translate into action at the ballot box remains to be seen. But local Democratic leaders are confident that a large showing by the rank and file starting tonight at the county convention will translate into a sizable chunk of campaign cash as well as potential recruits for the election wars ahead.
They'll need both. Republicans in the county outnumber Democrats by a wider margin today than ever before--nearly 2 to 1. Moreover, the Orange County Republican Party has proven particularly adept at raising money and trotting out formidable candidates.
Democratic leaders, however, suggest a new age may be dawning in the county. The Reagan '80s are over, they proclaim, and the 1990s promise to be a far more hospitable environment for Democrats. If the party could gain the White House, the reverberations could even be felt in Orange County.
"If I've seen nothing else, I've seen that this thing goes in cycles," said Howard Adler, the party's Orange County chairman. "We seem to be at the end of the Reagan era. I think people are prepared to register Democrat this year."
For their part, most Republican leaders scoff at the notion of a resurgent Orange County Democratic Party.
"They're an endangered species," said Harvey Englander, a Newport Beach-based Republican political consultant. "They're just not a factor in terms of partisan politics in California or the nation. They're not a factor in local races. It's sort of a sad lot."
While a Democratic revival might seem dubious in a county so long dominated by the GOP, there is precedent. In 1978, during the post-Watergate years when Jimmy Carter was President, registered Democrats edged out Republicans 45.8% to 45.5%. The party held half the legislative and congressional seats and three of five spots on the County Board of Supervisors.
Even today, Orange County's more than 350,000 registered Democrats represent the party's third-largest block in the state, behind only Los Angeles and San Diego counties.
"There's even more registered Democrats here than in San Francisco, which is considered to be a real stronghold for the party in California," Adler noted.
All those votes make the Democratic Party in Orange County, despite its time-tested image as a political weakling next to the muscle-bound Republicans, something to be reckoned with, in particular for moderate Democrats eager to counteract liberal strongholds such as West Los Angeles and the Bay Area.
Political consultants say two U.S. Senate candidates in particular, McCarthy and Feinstein, stand to gain by coming to Orange County before the June 2 primary. McCarthy is running against Rep. Mel Levin (D-Santa Monica) and Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Marin) for one seat, while Feinstein is pitted against Controller Gray Davis for the other.