News

California reschedules its primary

Steven Harmon
San Jose Mercury News (MCT)
State Senator Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, Speaker Fabian Nunez, and Senate Republican Leader, Dick Ackerman, R-Irvine, laugh as California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signs SB 113, authored by Calderon at the Leland Stanford Mansion, Thursday, March 15, 2007. (Brian Baer/Sacramento Bee/MCT)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - The stage is now set for what could be a de facto national primary day with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signing a bill Thursday that moves up California's presidential primary to Feb. 5, 2008.

As many as two dozen states could end up holding their caucuses and primaries on Feb. 5, spurred in great part by the action of the nation's most populous state. But the impact also is already being felt within California, where voters have been wooed by a series of visits by all the major presidential candidates.

"Just by talking about moving the presidential primary has already elevated California's status," Schwarzenegger said, just before signing the bill, SB 113, in the courtyard of the Leland Stanford mansion in Sacramento, the site of the first visit by a sitting president to California, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880. "Moving up the presidential primary from June to February means California will have the influence it deserves in choosing America's next presidential candidates."

California immediately becomes the giant among states that have already set their primaries or caucuses for Feb. 5, overshadowing Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Missouri and Utah. New Mexico and Idaho Democrats have set their presidential caucuses for Feb. 5, and the West Virginia GOP plans to hold its state convention, which selects presidential candidates, on that date.

But other large states, including Florida, Illinois, Michigan and New Jersey are among the 15 other states considering moving their contests to Feb. 5. If that happens, candidates would have to spend time and money there, also, possibly diminishing California's impact on picking the presidential nominees.

"I just don't think it's all that it's made out to be," said Republican strategist Ken Khachigian, a veteran of eight presidential campaigns. "It won't have the effect that everybody wants."

Still, the alternative would be to sit on the sidelines in June, watching idly as the rest of the nation chooses the next nominees, said Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategist and also a veteran of presidential campaigns.

"If nothing was done, and we still would have had a June primary, all the candidates would have just slipped in and out of the state for fundraisers and not do all the public events they're doing," Carrick said. "We're now way beyond that. They've got to work California into their strategy. It's significantly different than if they'd left things with a June primary."

California's assets are in its delegates: 440 in the winner-take-all system for Democrats. That's 10 percent of the 4,366 national delegates. Republicans award their 173 delegates to winners of each Congressional district.

"With so many delegates," said Jack Pitney, political science professor at Claremont McKenna College, "no candidate will be able to afford to ignore this state."

The state's diversity - among people and regions - will force candidates to address issues they might not otherwise, predicted state Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Los Angeles, the author of the bill, who also believes that grassroots political activity will explode.

"Now, we're going to have an unprecedented amount of voter registration when these candidates come into California," Calderon said. "People will want to get their citizenship so they can register to vote. The Get Out the Vote effort will be huge."

Who can vote might also change somewhat. Democrats currently allow party registrants and those who are declined to state to vote in their primary; Republicans currently only allow those registered with the GOP, but with declined to state the fastest growing category of voters there is a push to allow them to also vote in the Republican primary.

Still, the drawbacks to the rush to the front are many, political observers say: Candidates won't be shaking too many hands; the demise of retail politics could be accelerated even more quickly given the compacted primary season - even in the traditional hands-on states like New Hampshire and Iowa. Also, California's expensive media market will limit even the top tier candidates' ability to blanket the state with television advertising that voters are accustomed to in statewide races.

The early rush to the front, Khachigian said, could lend even more importance to the first four primaries and caucuses in New Hampshire, Iowa, Nevada and South Carolina, all to be held in January, 2008.

"They'll work even harder in the first four states," he said. "So, this early primary may have the opposite effect of taking the focus away from California by pulling out all the stops" before Feb. 5.

There is no way, Carrick said, to handicap how candidates will handle the unpredictable thicket of Feb. 5, because the strategic difficulties facing them are many and complex.

"There are enormous questions campaigns will have to deal with," Carrick said. "How much money should they put in one state or another, whether they should target some states and not others. We're not at the point where we can say how these candidates will respond to this."


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