As California Goes . . .

Every time they look at California's 1998 race for governor, political leaders and consultants across the nation are thinking 2002.

That's because the political affiliation of the next governor will have enormous influence over the new congressional districts the state must draw after the 2000 census.

Across the country, governors will be signing or vetoing redistricting plans approved by their state legislatures. As the biggest state, California has the most congressional seats. And depending on how the lines are drawn, analysts say, California alone could change the balance of power in the House of Representatives.

California has 52 House seats now and is likely to gain at least three more after the census.

Under law, boundaries must be adjusted after each census so that every congressional district has the same population. But there is still considerable room for political manipulation of the boundary lines.

"The new governor could make the difference between 10 or 12 seats going Republican or Democratic in the House of Representatives, and therefore it makes a difference as to whether we have someone like Dick Gephardt or Newt Gingrich as speaker," said Attorney General Dan Lungren, the presumptive GOP nominee for governor.

Democrats agree.

"If reapportionment is done right, we can gain 10 seats," said Bob Mulholland, political adviser to the California Democratic Party.

There will be two congressional elections this year and in 2000 before new district lines are redrawn. But as Congress is constituted today, a swing of 11 seats would put the Democrats back in control of the House.

Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, is barred from seeking a third term. The political affiliation of the next governor is especially important because the Democrats are firmly entrenched in the Legislature.

"A Democratic Legislature seems to be pretty much of a permanent fixture," said Anthony Quinn, a GOP analyst in Sacramento. "So, if you have a Democratic governor, that can dramatically change the makeup of the House delegation."

The three major contenders for the Democratic nomination businessman Al Checchi, Lt. Gov. Gray Davis and Rep. Jane Harman are in a dead heat with Lungren, according to the most recent polls.

But it's not the individual as much as his or her party affiliation that matters.

In 1990, for example, California conservatives put aside differences with Wilson because he was seen as the only Republican who could win the governor's office and block a Democratic gerrymander. Wilson won, and the result is the GOP-leaning districts California has had for the past decade.

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