News

California's presidential primary will likely move to February

Steven Harmon
San Jose Mercury News

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - The state Senate overwhelmingly approved a bill Tuesday that would move up the state's 2008 presidential primary to Feb. 5 and provide California with the kind of political clout its supporters argue is befitting the nation's largest state.

The measure, SB 113, was approved on a 31-5 vote, and sent to the Assembly, where it is expected to sail through and onto the desk of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who already has voiced strong support for the idea.

California's presidential primary, which traditionally had been held in June, was moved up to March in 1996, 2000 and 2004, but even then presidential nominees were already in place, muting the state's voice in the process. The 2008 primary currently is scheduled for June.

If moved to Feb. 5, only Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina would hold any primary or caucus before California. However, other states such as New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Florida have talked about moving their primaries up to Feb. 5, which could create a new Super Tuesday, where a cascade of delegates could determine the nominee almost at the outset.

"For years, California has held its primary well after the decisions on presidential nominees have been made," said state Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland. "Today, we're sending a bipartisan message that the nation's largest state deserves to be more than an ATM for presidential contenders but should also have a voice in who is elected."

Contenders have already begun to grapple with the idea of campaigning in the most populous state and most expensive media market in the nation. With neither party boasting an incumbent - the first such instance since 1952 - the possibilities are wide open, and while everyone agrees California's decision will have a major impact on the race, there is debate over what exactly that impact might be.

Some say an early primary gives the advantage to top tier candidates with the biggest campaign war chests and highest name ID - such as New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama among the Democrats and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Arizona Sen. John McCain on the Republican side.

But others say that California could offer breakthrough opportunities to underdogs such as Democratic New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, with his Latino heritage, or Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, with his conservative record and clearly-defined opposition to the Iraq war.

"If we have a free-for-all on both sides, an early California primary could allow someone using non-traditional means like the Internet and community organizing to take off," said Rick Jacobs, founder of the Courage Campaign, a grassroots organization that supports an early primary. "Nothing's sewn up. It's wide open and California could be a big factor."

Giuliani's just-concluded four-day swing through the state is just one example of how an early California primary has begun to weigh heavily on candidates' campaign plans. Immediately after Obama announced his candidacy last weekend, his campaign said he would make a stop in California next week.

Some Republicans have begun to openly question McCain's failure to make it to California - even though it's almost a year before the first primaries or caucuses will be held.

"When is the last time McCain was in California?" asked GOP strategist Karen Hanretty, who is unaligned with any campaign. "Everyone who's anyone has been through the state over the past 30 days."

If anything is certain, it's that California has not had any impact on presidential primaries lately, said Jim Battin, R-Calif.

"California did not matter," he said. "The election was always decided before it came to California. Just the rumor of this has created great turmoil. Now, candidates are re-factoring California into their plans."

Opponents said the state should not pay the estimated $40 million to $90 million for an extra election - especially since there is a hidden motive: Some lawmakers also want to put a measure on the ballot to extend term limits. If that were put on the ballot in February, before their current terms expire, it could extend their time in office.

"They're talking about putting California into play," said Sen. Dave Cox, R-Roseville. "But that's not what this is about. This is about changing rules on term limits. . . . And we don't need to be spending $60 million on an election we don't need to have."

In California's most previous changes to early primaries from June to March, legislative primaries also were included, said Jamie Court, president of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.

"To create an extra election just to put term limits on the ballot," Court said, "and allow term-limited legislators to keep their jobs is such an abuse of taxpayer dollars."

Perata said he couldn't worry if voters suspect the bill is self-serving for legislators.

"Too much is made out of political self-interest," he said before the vote. "Everybody believes they're self-interested by definition. . . . I just think there's a real problem with a lack of continuity (under current term limits). I believed that when I taught civics, and I believe it now."

Perata said he expects to push through ethics reforms - including a measure to eliminate all gifts from lobbyists - as a goodwill gesture to voters. A measure to change the way political boundaries are drawn will also likely be on the Feb. 5 ballot.

Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, D-Los Angeles, said he hopes to have the primary bill on the governor's desk within 10 days. An early primary, he said, would force candidates to address issues important to Californians such as immigration and offshore drilling.

"These issues disproportionately affect California," he said at a luncheon Tuesday. "And candidates should be vetted on these issues sooner than later."

Bill Carrick, a Democratic political strategist, supports moving up the primary, but is dubious that it will have the impact that many believe - because the high stakes of California and the others will put an even higher premium on New Hampshire and Iowa.

"I think we'll end up with earlier states having even more impact," said Carrick, a strategist for several presidential candidates, including former Congressman Dick Gephardt and former President Bill Clinton. "This will make Iowa and New Hampshire even more important. So, you'll see the candidates really bear down in Iowa and New Hampshire."

Perata and others are convinced that California will steer the course of the campaign, if only because California voters will bear their own stamp.

"I don't much care about the others," Perata said. "I still think we're the biggest dog in the kennel. When we say something and start barking, people will pay attention."

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