A watershed political year for California?

Every decade or so, California experiences a watershed election year which realigns the state’s cast of politicians — bringing some careers to an end and jump-starting others — and 2006 could be one of those events.

Whether Arnold Schwarzenegger continues his governorship or becomes an idiosyncratic footnote to history is, of course, the biggest political question hanging over the state. Schwarzenegger’s once-soaring popularity hangs below the 50 percent mark and he’s failed so far to gain approval of a big infrastructure package. But polls indicate that Schwarzenegger’s political position is improving _ in part because voters are giving him credit for trying to fix infrastructure _ and his two would-be challengers, Treasurer Phil Angelides and Controller Steve Westly, have their own problems.

The two Democrats are trading insults in e-mails to political reporters, but have yet to fire the heavy artillery of negative television ads, each seemingly waiting for the other to shoot first. Few in politics doubt, however, that they’ll spend upwards of $40 million between now and June beating each other up _ thus exhausting financial reserves and defining each other in negative terms that will accrue to Schwarzenegger’s benefit.

Even without the Schwarzenegger saga, however, there’s no shortage of political conflict and intrigue. Only two other statewide officeholders, nonpartisan Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell and Republican Secretary of State Bruce McPherson, are running for new terms, touching off battles for other offices considered to be political stepping-stones.

Republicans, by design or happenstance, have only one serious primary battle looming, pitting state Sen. Abel Maldonado against former Assemblyman Tony Strickland for the controller’s office that Westly is giving up. That leaves the GOP’s major candidates for other offices _ state Sen. Tom McClintock for lieutenant governor, state Sen. Chuck Poochigian for attorney general, Silicon Valley executive Steve Poizner for insurance commissioner, and Assemblyman Keith Richman for treasurer _ free to raise money and seek favorable publicity.

Not so the Democrats. There’s an array of potentially heated primary conflicts, beginning with a three-way duel for lieutenant governor among state Sens. Jackie Speier and Liz Figueroa and Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi that has already sparked sharp exchanges between Speier and Garamendi.

Jerry Brown, one of the state’s best known (and most controversial) political figures, who served two terms as governor and two as mayor of Oakland with other political sojourns in between, is the early favorite for the Democratic nomination for attorney general. But Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo is ramping up a campaign that focuses on Oakland’s violent crime and exploits, he hopes, Brown’s negative image among voters.

State Sen. Joe Dunn wanted to run for attorney general until Brown bumped him aside. Then he wanted to run for state treasurer, until Attorney General Bill Lockyer opted for that position. Now Dunn is running to succeed Westly as controller, but must get by Board of Equalization member John Chiang in the primary, then defeat the Republican nominee.

With Dunn’s switch, Lockyer has a free ride for the Democratic nomination for treasurer and thus can hoard his multi-million-dollar campaign fund for the race against Richman, who faces token primary opposition from Board of Equalization member Claude Parrish. Given Lockyer’s big war chest, Richman is the one who must hustle for enough money to make it a race.

The financial shoe’s on the other foot for Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, who wants to continue his political career as insurance commissioner. Never known as a strong fundraiser, Bustamante doesn’t have to worry about a primary race but faces a Republican rival with an unlimited budget from his own bank account in Poizner.

Finally, two termed-out state senators, Debra Bowen and Deborah Ortiz, will duel for the Democratic nomination for secretary of state and the right to challenge McPherson’s bid for a new term.

This year’s winners will become the pool in which potential governors and U.S. senators splash about.

(Contact Dan Walters at dwalters(at)sacbee.com. Back columns: www.sacbee.com/walters.)