This year, California will experience a new kind of election. And as of last week, it may just have a politician who'll be able to exploit it.

In June, Californians will encounter a primary ballot unlike any seen in this state since the '40s. Under the open-primary law passed by voters in 1996, each candidate's name, regardless of party, will appear on one omnibus list of all candidates for a particular office. Votes will still be tallied by party: The leading Democrat will face off against the leading Republican, Libertarian and so on, in November. But voters can opt for anyone in June: Democrats can vote for a Republican, Republicans for a Democrat.

The open primary marks an abrupt about-face for a state that's long been known for the ideological polarization of the two parties. Since the Goldwater campaign of '64, right-wing Republican activists have dominated Republican primaries. Correspondingly, liberals have been the leading force in Democratic primaries since the days when civil rights and antiwar activists took control of the party apparatus in the '60s. And with successive reapportionments creating politically lopsided districts where it was safe for both Democratic leftists and Republican rightists to indulge their beliefs, the center in California politics tended to hollow out. Candidates for statewide office, of course, had to worry about centrist voters come the November run-offs – but not before they had to worry about more ideologically driven voters in the June primaries.

It should have been no surprise, then, that until last week, we didn't have a gubernatorial candidate who was wholly suitable for an open primary. Now we do. Her name is Jane Harman.

Harman is the third of three potential centrist candidates for governor who stood to benefit from the open primary – but the only one actually to run. Dianne Feinstein, in calculating her chances, surely must have counted on Republican women crossing over to vote for her rather than cast their June votes for anti-abortion, anti-gun-control Dan Lungren, or for a conventional Democrat such as Gray Davis. Richard Riordan, in his electoral calculations, could not even have contemplated defeating Lungren for the Republican nomination without rallying independents and Democrats to his standard. In the end, though, neither Feinstein nor Riordan really wanted to make the race.

Enter, at the last possible minute (last Wednesday, the deadline for filing), Jane Harman, a Democratic member of Congress only by virtue of her ability to win Republican votes. Since 1993, Harman has represented a South Bay (Venice-to-San Pedro) district where the two parties are about evenly matched – which, given the Republican propensity for higher turnout than Democrats, means that it is a Republican-leaning district. Confounding the pundits, though, Harman has held the seat through three successive elections – her secret being a center-right voting record unlike that of any other L.A.-area Democrat (all of whom have far safer districts), and an ample campaign war chest filled in good measure by her husband's money. (Sidney Harman owns one of the world's largest sound-system companies.) In 1994, the year of the Republican sweep, Harman trailed her Republican opponent when election night was done, only to squeak through by 812 votes once the absentee ballots had been tallied.

Harman's first choice for governor, she insists, was Feinstein, the prospective front-runner who waited until two weeks before the filing deadline to announce that she didn't want to run. But more telling is the fact that Harman didn't declare until a few hours after Riordan announced that he wouldn't be running, either. With Riordan in the open primary, the center would have been very crowded. Only with both Feinstein and Riordan safely out of the race did Harman proclaim she was in.

Harman enters the race as the Feinstein Lite of California politics. Feinstein is the best-known of known quantities in California public life, having run statewide in 1990, '92 and '94. Harman is almost as obscure as Feinstein is famous. But like Feinstein, she brings to the fray a husband's fortune and a voting record that should play in Fresno. Indeed, Harman's voting record is a near-match for our senior senator's. The Almanac of American Politics creates three liberal-conservative voting indices each year – one for economic issues, one for social issues, one for foreign policy – for every member of Congress. When the congresswoman's record is compared to the senator's for their first four years in Congress, 1993 through 1996, they are within 5 percent of each other on eight of the 12 indices.

Some of Harman's record is straight boiler-plate Democratic: She opposed NAFTA and propositions 187 and 209. On other issues, though, she's been not only to Clinton's right, but Feinstein's too. Coming from one of the most defense-dependent districts in the nation, she's been a predictable advocate of such projects as the B-2 bomber. Less predictably, perhaps, she was one of only four of the 26 California Democratic House members to favor the abolition of welfare in 1996. (Most California Democrats opposed the bill chiefly because of the threat it posed to the state's legal immigrants.) Struggling to stay afloat in her district, Harman has voted for such symbolic nonsense as the constitutional amendment banning flag-burning, and such dangerous nonsense as the constitutional amendment mandating a balanced-budget (which would leave the government powerless to deal with a steep recession or a national crisis).

By most standards, it's not a record a self-respecting Democrat would want to write home about. By the standard of an open primary, however, it's a record that just might catapult Harman into the governor's mansion.

Harman has always depended on the kindness of crossover voters. In her first run for Congress, she campaigned heavily and successfully among pro-choice Republican women who were repelled by her Republican opponent's anti-choice stance. With Dan Lungren – another anti-choice stalwart – unopposed in the Republican primary, she will be campaigning not only among Democrats this June, but sending mail to selected Republican women as well, says Bill Carrick, her campaign consultant. (Carrick would have been the consultant for Feinstein had she run, then Riordan had he run. Clearly, this is a guy who has cornered a niche market.)

The Democrats have gone down this path before. In 1992, with both Feinstein and Barbara Boxer on the ballot, the party helped them both to victory by sending 800,000 pieces of mail to suburban Republican women. This November, no matter whether Gray Davis, Al Checchi or Harman is the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, a similar pitch to Republican women is sure to be made: All the Democrats are pro-choice, and all have somewhat better bona fides than Lungren on the key issue of education.

But the open primary is terra incognita: Can Harman win over the independents and Republicans she needs in June, when no one is accustomed to crossing party lines in the primary? For that matter, can Al Checchi?

For Harman isn't the only candidate in the field banking on crossover votes. While Davis has a base among core Democrats, Checchi enters the race with no political identity whatever, and a bankroll that can fund a campaign targeting every constituency in the known political universe. To date, Checchi's campaign has something for everyone: for the right, the death penalty for child molesters (though he is said to oppose it for serial loiterers); for the left, a commitment to greater income equity and public investment in education.

Harman has the record to take on Checchi in the race for crossovers. Whether she has the money to do so will be known soon enough. (Carrick says her ads will shortly start appearing on California airwaves). Clearly, one consequence of the open primary and the expanded pool of voters it opens to the best-funded candidates is that it places an even greater premium on money in politics than was already the case. Just what California politics needed.

Harman's entry scrambles what was shaping up as a fairly predictable Democratic primary, with Checchi campaigning as the fresh outsider, and Davis campaigning as the keeper of the Democratic flame. She certainly muddies the clarity of Checchi's one-on-one attack on Davis, as well as posing a threat to his campaign for non-Democratic voters. She also could be the beneficiary of the Democratic gender gap – the Democratic primary electorate is 60 percent female, and in every recent statewide Democratic primary that pitted a female against a male (not to mention a female against two males), the female has won. (Note for Ripley's Believe-It etc.: Should Harman actually be elected, and Boxer re-elected, California's governor and both of its senators would be Jewish women.)

But first, Harman has to come up with enough money to convince the state she's a credible Feinstein substitute. If she does, she will surely not be the candidate of choice for thousands of Democrats – but she's sure to be the candidate Lungren fears most. For if she wins in June, it's likely to be with the votes that he needs – and she'll take – in November.

LA Weekly