Sonny Bono in the Senate? -- The former actor/singer has a good shot at going to Washington

Sonny Bono steps up to a microphone and scans the faces of the more than 200 Republican party activists gathered at the Quiet Cannon Country Club in the suburbs of Los Angeles. The TV hippie-turned-neoconservative politico smiles nervously from under his droopy mustache, shuffles his notes, and delivers what could be the greatest straight line of his career: ”I’m here today,” says the mayor of Palm Springs, ”because I intend to become the next senator from California.”

Only the punch line is: He’s not joking. Cher’s ex-old man really wants to become Senator Bono, esteemed member of the most powerful legislative body in the world. Even more astonishing, the 56-year-old composer of ”I Got You Babe” and ”The Beat Goes On” actually has a chance of winning. In the three-way Republican primary race for lame-duck Alan Cranston’s Senate seat, polls show Bono only two percentage points behind ultraconservative candidate Bruce Herschensohn and four points ahead of U.S. Rep. Tom Campbell. And Bono has a lot going for him: a killer staff — much the same team that helped George Bush win California in 1988 — plenty of time to campaign (the primary is five months away), and a whopping 92 percent name-awareness rating with California voters.

”Most people are taking Bono’s candidacy seriously,” says Republican state Sen. Bill Leonard, a Herschensohn supporter. ”In California, entertainers get elected to public office all the time. It’s a sort of tradition in this state.”

Of course, Bono also has serious campaign liabilities. For starters, there’s the fact that he’s, well, Sonny Bono. Even at the zenith of his fame — playing the butt of a certain tattooed woman’s put-downs on CBS’ top-rated The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour — he came across as a major shlub. After Cher walked out in 1975, Bono’s career, and self-esteem, took a nosedive. ”I was doing Love Boat and Fantasy Island,” he says. ”Nobody was returning my phone calls. And Cher was doing great, which made me feel even worse.”

Finally, in 1986, Bono chucked show biz and moved with his fourth wife, Mary, to Palm Springs, where he bought a restaurant and started a family (Chesare, 3, and Chianna Maria, 11 months). The rest is local history: Zoning squabbles over the size of his restaurant’s sign prompted Bono’s much-publicized entrance into politics and his successful 1988 campaign for mayor.

With his term ending in April, Bono’s mayoral record isn’t exactly stamped ”Senatorial Material.” Although he scored some notable victories (balancing the city budget, organizing the town’s first international film festival), there were also some sizable blunders. Like the time Hizzoner asked the city to buy first-class air tickets to send the Bono family to the Cannes Film Festival. Or the time he tried to cool down spring-break fever by enacting silly anti-bikini ordinances.

”I had no experience when I became mayor of Palm Springs,” Bono says. ”None. And being mayor is no piece of cake. On a lot of levels, it’s the hardest political job there is. There’s no insulation. You do something bad, you pay for it the next day.”

Bono describes his political philosophy as ”conservative,” but the truth is that his views on most matters seem militantly mainstream. He’s pro-choice, pro-education, pro-investment tax credits, pro-Clarence Thomas, and pro-death penalty; he’s anti-Saddam Hussein and anti-illegal immigration. His economic vision in a nutshell: ”Product, product, product. We have to go back to a production-oriented society. That’s the only way to survive.”

Certainly Bono is striking some sort of chord with the People. At a recent poolside rally held in the L.A. suburb of Glendora, the crowd got so excited on his arrival they accidentally knocked a dowager into the deep end (she was fished out with her spirits undampened). ”He’s not a forceful speaker, he doesn’t have much charisma, and he hasn’t really thought out all his positions,” says a local accountant who brought his toddler to the rally. ”But he’s down to earth. He’s not a typical politician. You get the feeling you can trust him.”

Californians have cast ballots for entertainers before, of course — song-and-dance man George Murphy tap-danced his way to the Senate in 1965, Clint Eastwood was elected mayor of Carmel in 1986, and a B actor even made it to the White House in 1980 — but for Bono the climb seems awfully steep. Even if he wins the primary, he’ll still face one of several formidable Democrats in the November general election. But if he pulls it off, if he actually becomes Senator Sonny, he’ll have put years of short-guy jokes and Love Boat appearances behind him forever.

”Why am I running?” the candidate asks. ”I love a big show.”