Democrats sweep home in California

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A JUBILANT Democratic Party scored a virtual clean sweep of top electoral posts in California, bringing to a close a 16-year period of Republican domination of state politics and providing the party of Bill Clinton and Al Gore with what could be a crucial launchpad for the next presidential election.

As expected, the bland centrist Gray Davis scored a handsome victory over Dan Lungren, his Republican challenger for the governorship. Senator Barbara Boxer, the national figure most compromised by the Clinton sex scandal because of her trenchant stand on sexual morality, bounced back at the end of a tough re-election race to knock out her opponent, outgoing state treasurer Matt Fong.

Democrats clinched all but one of the main state offices on offer, including Mr Lungren's attorney generalship, and retained convincing, if slightly reduced, majorities in both houses of California's state legislature.

Both Mr Davis and Ms Boxer won their races by seizing the middle ground and making their opponents look extreme on such issues as gun control, healthcare, abortion, the environment and education. Mr Davis was particularly effective in saying he would compensate for his lack of charisma by getting on with the job.

Nowhere could the Democrats' unexpectedly good electoral fortunes be seen so saliently as in California. And nowhere could have been more significant for the future of United States politics in general.

California is already the most populous state in the US, and growing in influence. With a handful of new congressional districts expected to be handed to California in 2001 in recognition of its booming population, the Democrats now have the opportunity to redraw district boundaries to their own advantage.

One of the last acts of the outgoing Republican governor, Pete Wilson, was to move California's presidential primaries from their traditional June slot to March. The idea was to make the West Coast a decisive factor in picking the next chief executive rather than a confirmatory afterthought, and the plan is still likely to be realised in some form.