In summary

With dozens of candidates for the U.S. Senate and governor this year, handicapping the June 5 primary election is difficult. The biggest unknown is whether Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom will have the luxury of a Republican opponent in November, or will face fellow Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa.

As Californians open their June 5 voting packets this month, they may be a little shocked by the sheer number of candidates for the state’s highest offices – 32 for U.S. senator and 27 for governor.

That’s because under the state’s “top two” primary system all candidates for partisan offices appear on the same primary ballot, with the two highest finishers, regardless of party, advancing to a November runoff.

It’s completely changed the dynamics of primary elections, creating battles for second place and therefore a second chance to win. But with so many candidates, each of whom will garner at least a few votes, with mail voting already underway and with the prospect of a low turnout primary, pre-election handicapping is imprecise at best.

There’s little doubt that U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein will finish first in the Senate primary, and with no serious Republican candidate on the ballot, she seems destined to face her chief Democratic challenger, state Sen. Kevin de León, in November.

However, with fewer than three weeks remaining before election day, the contest for governor is much murkier.

Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom has been the consistent frontrunner in the polls, and for months it appeared that he would face former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who had pulled into virtual tie.

As winter turned to spring, however, Democrat Villaraigosa inexplicably began to fade, Newsom’s support climbed and John Cox, a wealthy Republican businessman and philanthropist from San Diego, slipped into contention for second place. Cox pulled slightly ahead of Villaraigosa in April polls by the Public Policy Institute of California and UC-Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies.

Where it stands now is uncertain. A coalition of wealthy education reform and charter school advocates responded to Villaraigosa’s fade with a multi-million-dollar “independent expenditure” campaign on his behalf.

As mayor, Villaraigosa pushed the kind of education changes they supported, battling teacher unions, and Newsom is aligned with those unions in his bid for governor. Were Villaraigosa to make the November runoff, it would be another front in the seemingly endless war between the education establishment and reform advocates over the direction of the state’s six-million-student public school system.

Newsom would prefer not to face Villaraigosa – and said as much during the final multi-candidate debate last week.

Tellingly, Newsom’s campaign aired an ad prior to the May 8 debate that attacked Cox by linking him to the National Rifle Association. It was clearly aimed at boosting Cox’s standing with anti-gun control Republican voters.

Cynical manipulation? Of course it is, but not unprecedented. It’s similar to what an unpopular Democratic governor, Gray Davis, did in 2002 as he sought re-election.

Davis’ campaign began attacking his most formidable Republican challenger, former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, in hopes that a weaker Republican, Bill Simon, would win the GOP primary. It worked, and Davis won a very narrow re-election against Simon, although voters recalled him a year later.

Will it work this year for Newsom? Will he get his token Republican opponent and skate to a win in November, or will he face Villaraigosa?

We’ll know on June 5.

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Dan WaltersOpinion Columnist

Dan Walters has been a journalist for more than 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times...