Two years ago, the state Democratic Party stood in disarray, having lost its third consecutive gubernatorial race to the sleek, well-oiled state Republican Party juggernaut.
These days, however, a transformation has taken place.
California Democrats registered nearly three times as many voters from May to September. The state GOP is locked in a wrenching, intraparty feud between moderate Gov. Pete Wilson and the Christian right. And for once it is Republican Party leaders who, less than two weeks before a general election, are eyeing with envy the united front posed by their traditional ideological foe.
"It's fair to say the Democrats appear to be better organized than they've been in a long, long time and the Republicans appear to be less well organized than they've been for a long, long time," said Republican strategist Steven Merksamer, who served as a chief of staff for former Gov. George Deukmejian. "I think that it clearly will have an impact on the ballot. It always has."
Democrats are hoping their concerted effort will swing several key congressional and Assembly races in their favor. In 44 of California's 52 congressional districts, GOP registration has dropped by at least a percentage point since February. And in 69 of the state's 80 Assembly districts, Democrats outpaced Republicans in registration from May to September.
The registration boom could also provide icing on the cake for the U.S. Senate candidacies of Democratic front-runners Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, party leaders predict.
"Two years ago, Dianne Feinstein lost the governor's race by 266,000 votes, and in 1986, Sen. Alan Cranston was reelected by 105,000 votes," said state Democratic Party Political Director Bob Mulholland. "The point is, numerous elections have been decided by 100,000 votes out of nearly 8 million cast.
"So it is important that before the polls have been opened, we've increased the Democratic margin by some 400,000 registered voters in a Democratic year."
The state party's fortunes have been bolstered by a combination of strategic decisions, personnel moves and presidential trends.
Without question, experts say, California has proved fertile territory for Democratic organizing efforts because of widespread disenchantment with George Bush in a state that is suffering from spiraling unemployment and dire budgetary woes. The registration surge appears to mirror a national trend in which people are signing up in record numbers to vote in the presidential election.
In recent years, however, the state Democratic Party might not have had the institutional will or capability to take advantage, observers say.
When Feinstein narrowly lost her race for governor to Wilson two years ago, for example, the state party, chaired at the time by former Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., was embarrassingly outspent and out-organized in its get-out-the-vote effort.
"His specialty is ideas, not organization, and it showed," said Assemblyman Phillip Isenberg (D-Sacramento), who chairs the Democratic Assembly's voter registration committee.
Brown, who eventually departed for loftier goals, was replaced by Phil Angelides, a young, ambitious Sacramento developer. Although some party members have been turned off by his self-promotional tendencies, Angelides, 39, has received credit for working tirelessly to instill manners in the long-dysfunctional party while paying strict attention to the nuts-and-bolts mechanics needed to win votes in the computer age.
"It's very simple," Mulholland said. "The Democrats finally said to themselves--and Phil deserves much of the credit for this--let's stop fighting with each other and fight the Republicans."
Last spring, the Democrats avoided infighting at their state convention in Los Angeles by not endorsing candidates in the two closely contested U.S. Senate primary races.
And in the last year, the party has poured as much as $1.5 million into voter registration programs--including a $1-per-head bounty to party workers for each new voter.
The effort could reap huge rewards in several hot races.
In the 69th Assembly District, where incumbent Tom Umberg (D-Garden Grove) faces a well-financed challenge, Democrats outpaced Republicans in new registrations by a margin of 11,061 to 1,618 between March and October. In the Napa County-area 7th Assembly District, where Democrat Valerie Kent Brown is facing Republican Janet G. Nicholas, Democratic registration outpaced Republican registration by 18,523 to 2,980 between May and October.
In the 41st Assembly District in Los Angeles County, where incumbent Terry B. Friedman faces Republican Christine Reed, Democrats have registered 10,000 more voters than Republicans since the June primary. At the beginning of the year, the Democrats held a 49%-40% lead in registration in the newly formed district covering portions of the Westside and San Fernando Valley. Now the Democratic lead as widened to 50.3% to 36.5%.