Cautious but confident, US Sen. Alan Cranston (D) of California will seek his third term this year and in the process work to prove that political durability is possible in a state where erratic voting patterns abound.
Given a campaign pocketbook that is already well-lined, a scattershot Republican challenge, and his position of power as majority whip in the Senate, which enables him to more easily secure benefits for his home state, Senator Cranston's efforts should succeed.
But he is not taking the race lightly. "I am not going to assume anything, knowing the volatility of the California electorate and how fast things can change," he says.
To intimidate fringe contenders, Senator Cranston raised $1.15 million in 1979 in preparation for the 1980 bid, which he will formally announced in February. "We wanted to make it plain to any prospective foe that he would be in for a fight," he said.
The Republicans, as a result, are still tentative. Conservative US Rep. John Rousselot started forcefully early last year but is thinking things over today. Others worked to draft US Rep. Barry Goldwater Jr., but he proved reluctant. Now Paul Gann, the property tax- slashing Proposition 13 co-author, is measuring his chances.
Many Republicans are convinced Senator Cranston is vulnerable. National GOP strategists have targeted his seat, one of 24 Democratic Senate seats open to challenge this year, as one they believe is within reach. If a strong candidate emerges, a considerable amount of out-of-state money will be available.
"Senator Cranston is more concerned with catching political drifts and making compromises than with strong leadership -- he drifts with the prevailing breeze, " says Truman Campbell, chairman of the Republican State Central Committee of California. "We think we can beat him."
However, polls indicate a steady climb in Mr. Cranston's popularity. A survey by the Field Institute shows just 23 percent of California voters thought he was doing an excellent or good job in 1971. Today, 43 percent believe his performance is excellent or good, and another 23 percent rate his record fair.
That strength spills over into head-to-head polls with the potential Republican challengers.
Senator Cranston is likely to stress his record on foreign affairs during the campaign, although his longstanding effort to achieve detente with the Soviet Union may no longer be an advantage in light of the Afghanistan invasion. He has not hesitated to vote for increased defense spending and that will not damage his reputation among the giant defense contractors in California.
He also will tout his efforts to exempt state-owned oil from the windfall-profits tax, preserve California wilderness areas, provide benefits for Vietnam veterans, aid farmers in the Imperial Valley, boost crop subsidies, as well as his work to stop an early version of the standby gasoline-rationing program that would have adversely affected California motorists.
As majority whip, Senator Cranston will hold himself up as the senator Californians can rely on. "I don't think people want to elect another [S.I.] Hayakawa," Senator Cranston says.
Says pollster Mervin D. Field: "Defeating Cranston will be a tall order for any Republican."
But Senator Cranston still frets. "I'm never overconfident about any race," he says. After two terms as a US senator, which followed an on-again, off-again career in state politics, Mr. Cranston has learned one thing about securing votes in California: Take nothing for granted.