Gov. Pete Wilson signed legislation Tuesday aimed at gaining California more clout in selecting presidential candidates by moving the 1996 presidential primary from June to March.
National political strategists agreed that advancing the primary to March 26 probably will have a greater impact on the Republican race for the White House in 1996 than on the expected renomination by Democrats of President Clinton.
One Republican adviser, Mike Baselice of the Tarrance Group, a national polling organization, went so far as to forecast that the winner-take-all GOP primary in California "is going to pretty much be the final determinant in deciding the Republican nominee in 1996."
At a bill signing ceremony, Republican Wilson noted that although presidential contenders have long tapped California as a "giant ATM" to finance their campaigns in other states, "we have been largely irrelevant to the process of nominations of our nation's Presidents."
He said the bill "will be a good thing for California and a good thing for the nation."
In recent elections, by the time that Californians voted in June most of the national convention delegates had been chosen by other states and the presidential nominees had been selected.
The early primary is an experiment, and depending on the outcome it could be made permanent by the Legislature and governor.
The 1996 primary ballot will also contain contests that are usually on the June ballot, including legislative and congressional races, propositions and certain local election issues.
"California deserves a prime-time primary," said Assemblyman Jim Costa (D-Hanford), who had carried similar but unsuccessful measures since 1979.
California Democrats last played a pivotal role in the selection of a nominee in 1972, when George McGovern defeated Hubert H. Humphrey. State Republicans last exercised decisive power in 1964, when Barry Goldwater beat Nelson Rockefeller.
Although 1996 primary election dates in other states are subject to change, the California primary tentatively would occur two weeks after the big Super Tuesday primary in Southern states and one week before the New York primary.
"The good fortune for Democrats is you would have the nominee picked by mid-April, if not earlier," said Alice Travis, the national Democratic Party's delegation selection strategist. "You'd have a nominee you can really rally around. The bloodletting will be behind us and we can plan for the general election."
Because candidates probably will be forced to campaign in California to get the nomination, Costa and Travis said they will have to address such issues as immigration, trade, defense cuts, employment conversion and trade matters.
"If you can win in California with all the diverse elements, it certainly bodes well for a good strong message that will carry in the rest of the country," Travis said.
Although Democratic delegates in California are picked according to the proportion of votes a candidate receives, the GOP primary is winner-take-all.
Baselice, the GOP polling executive, noted that for at least the last two decades, presidential candidates have used California "to sort of wrap up their campaigns." He said an earlier primary in the state might benefit candidates with a California background.