CALIFORNIA, the megaphone of American politics, has given a strong boost to women candidates and signaled that anti-tax sentiment may be easing. By choosing former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein over state Attorney General John Van de Kamp to be the Democratic candidate for governor, voters have made a woman the nominee of a major party for the first time in state history. Two other women also won nominations to statewide offices.
Mrs. Feinstein's victory marks the triumph of a moderate consensus-seeker over a more traditional liberal and, in some analysts' eyes, the triumph of style over substance - both of which might hold some significance for Democrats nationwide.
At the same time, Californians have sent a message that it may be OK to raise taxes if it is for a specific purpose. They approved doubling the gasoline tax to finance transportation improvements and modifying a lid on state spending.
This vote, in particular, was being closely watched as a gauge of national sentiment on taxes. While analysts caution the vote doesn't mean Congress can now become loose with the nation's purse strings, it does give those in Washington who want to talk about tax hikes some political capital - and probably signals the end of Proposition 13-style penury in California.
``It symbolizes that it is safe to talk about taxes and spending, but only under very special circumstances,'' says William Schneider, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.
With her convincing 52-to-41 percent victory, Feinstein now meets Republican nominee Pete Wilson, who ran virtually unopposed in the primary, for the governorship. This will be one of the most important races of 1990, not only because it will determine who will run the nation's most populous state but because of the influence the governor will have in redrawing political boundaries after this year's census. California stands to gain as many as seven congressional seats.
The Feinstein-Wilson matchup should be a spirited one. Wilson is an experienced campaigner and prodigious fund-raiser. The Republican senator is strong on the environment, moderate on social issues, and conservative on economic matters - stands that put him in the middle of many California voters. ``I think Wilson is going to be a real strong candidate,'' says Sal Russo, a state GOP strategist.
Yet Feinstein brings plenty of strengths, too. She will undoubtedly use some of the same issues against Wilson that she did against Van de Kamp - particularly abortion. Although Wilson is pro-choice, he belongs to a party whose platform is anti-abortion.
She, too, can be an effective fund-raiser, or, if she isn't, can tap into personal funds. The moderate Democrat will prove appealing to many Republicans, particularly pro-choice women.
``She is seen as an intriguing political novelty. I'd say she is going to give Wilson a good run,'' says California pollster Mervin Field.
Throughout her campaign against Van de Kamp, Feinstein repeatedly drew attention to the fact that she was a woman and could become the first woman governor of California. Unlike some past generations of women candidates, she tried to make gender an asset - and appears to have had some success among both men and women. She received about equal support from both sexes in Tuesday's balloting.
``She had a much broader message and was able to define the Democratic constituency better than he [Van de Kamp] did,'' says Stephen Teichner, a southern California-based pollster.
She was effective in trumpeting her support of the death penalty, an emotional issue in California. Van de Kamp opposes capital punishment, though he said he would enforce the law.
On abortion, Feinstein was deemed more trustworthy by many pro-choice advocates. Van de Kamp, though personally against abortion, said he would do nothing to interfere with a woman's right to choose. Feinstein had argued that, by virtue of her sex, she would be the strongest defender of abortion rights.
Clearly another election determinant - and one that will come up with Wilson - was personality. Feinstein came off as more dynamic and ``telegenic'' than the cool, lawyerly Van de Kamp.
Some analysts, such as Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, argue that this week's election symbolizes the great dilemma facing the Democratic Party today: the traditional liberal wing versus more moderate elements. He contends that the Feinstein win bodes well for future potential presidential contenders like Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr., moderate-leaning Democrats who couldn't be easily exploited by the GOP on issues such as crime.
In this fall's gubernatorial campaign, the GOP stakes will be high. With the defeat of two propositions this week that would have reformed the redistricting process, the task will now be largely controlled by the Democratic-controlled state Legislature. Thus the governor's influence will be crucial.
In the area of taxes, the approval of Proposition 111, which would double the state gasoline tax over five years, may signal a new willingness by the public to accept higher levies - but a muted one. The measure was supported by leaders of both parties and the revenues are to help ease what is widely seen as a transportation crisis in the state. Thus, analysts say, anything suggesting from this that Americans may be willing to raise federal taxes to pay for the deficit is poppycock.