Early State GOP Primary May Not Be Soon Enough


For the first time since 1964, California Republicans are relishing the idea of holding a presidential primary election in 1996 that means something--of finally flexing their political might over a pecking order long dictated by the likes of New Hampshire and Iowa.

After decades of dangling meaninglessly out there in June, the 1996 California Republican presidential primary has been pulled back 10 weeks--to March 26.

The dream for Golden State Republicans is that two candidates will come to California head to head, with the winner taking all--as Nelson Rockefeller and Barry Goldwater did in 1964. And just maybe, in 1996, one of them will be California Gov. Pete Wilson, sweeping the state’s 163 delegates and riding in triumph to his hometown of San Diego in August to receive the prize at the 1996 Republican National Convention.

Talk about California clout.


Don’t bet on it, the experts are saying.

In fact, despite the early jump on the primary, the nomination battle could be all over for Republicans before it reaches California, just as it has been every fourth June for 30 years, the experts added.

That’s because California was not the only state to advance its primary to get in on the action.

At least 23 others will hold primaries or caucuses--held to allocate national convention delegates--before California votes March 26, meaning that more than 90% of the delegate votes needed to win the nomination will already have been won. And still others are likely to enter the primary season before California.


The 1996 contest could be decided more quickly than ever, some experts say, possibly within five weeks of the first critical balloting in February--in New Hampshire.

New Hampshire. Again. Always first in the nation, no matter what any other state tries to do.

“The key event, as always, is New Hampshire,” said William Schneider, a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute and political analyst for CNN. “It has always been that way and it always will be that way. Nothing California can do can change that.”

California tried. For years, Democrats and some Republicans in the Legislature talked of holding the state’s primary earlier, hopefully at a decisive juncture. They finally acted last year by establishing a March primary as a one-time trial.


The leaders of both parties vowed that no longer could the candidates jet West for glitzy fund-raising dinners in Century City or Beverly Hills, or San Francisco’s Nob Hill, and then rush back East to shower the cash with impunity over New Hampshire’s White Mountains or the banks of the Des Moines River. California money counted, a lot. California votes did not.

“Historically, California didn’t matter,” said Buck Johns, an Orange County developer, Republican activist and fund-raiser. “The only purpose it served was as a fund-raising base.

“Now, it’s a new game in town,” Johns said recently as he formally joined the campaign of Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas. “We’ve never had a chance to play it before.”

What seems clear is that the one thing an early primary in California guarantees, regardless of New Hampshire’s clout, is an emphasis by candidates on the state beyond simply using California as a political money machine. The political turf already is being staked out.


As important as California’s money is, the compressed primary schedule also requires candidates to put some sort of state organization in place just in case the nomination is not decided before March 26, several California experts said.

Gramm has been the most aggressive so far, signing on Johns and scheduling fund-raising events in Orange County in February and March. Johns has sent 4,000 letters to potential supporters asking them to join the Gramm campaign.

Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas is not far behind. He has hired Brian Lungren, a Sacramento political consultant and brother of the state attorney general, as his regional political director with emphasis on California.

Others who have made contact with party officials, key fund-raisers and organizers--either in person or by telephone--include former Vice President Dan Quayle; Lamar Alexander, the former Tennessee governor and education secretary, and former Rep. Jack Kemp, a Cabinet member in the George Bush Administration with longtime California ties.


There is also talk of several Republican governors considering campaigns, including Wisconsin’s Tommy G. Thompson and Massachusetts’ William F. Weld, in addition to Wilson.

For all of them, the experts send two messages: Be prepared to raise a lot of money, and do it quickly.

“If you’re not doing it now, you’re too late,” said John S. Herrington of Walnut Creek, vice chairman of the California Republican Party.

The reason is that the compressed primary schedule in 1996 will make it virtually impossible to do what some lesser-known regional politicians--Jimmy Carter and Michael Dukakis, for example--have done in the past.


They were able to parlay their skills at person-to-person, living room and back-yard barbecue politics into impressive showings in the small arenas of New Hampshire and Iowa. Then they used that momentum to raise money and build a campaign as the primary season rolled on into the big Atlantic Coast states, the South and the Midwest.

There will not be time between the successive waves of primaries to do that in 1996, said Herrington, a former U.S. energy secretary who will become the California Republican chairman at the state convention in Sacramento next month.

“This is not business as usual. These guys are going to be on airplanes from state to state, the primaries are coming so fast,” Herrington said.

Steven A. Merksamer, who was chief of staff for former Gov. George Deukmejian and is a well-connected Republican strategist, said: “There has been a lot more personal activity on the part of the candidates than I’ve ever seen. That only signifies how important California is to all the candidates, even if a California primary turns out not to be important.”


The consensus within both parties is that in the general election, California holds the key to the White House in November, 1996. President Clinton must carry California to win reelection, the experts said. All those interviewed agreed that Clinton, in spite of all his problems, will be the Democratic nominee again, and will be formidable.

“All the Republicans have to do is win California and you deny the Democrats the White House,” Merksamer said.

Lungren said the critical nature of California is an argument for Republicans to nominate a seasoned pro such as Dole.

“You have to establish a presence in California during this primary season,” Lungren said. “If and when you win the nomination, you can’t just come in like the new kid in town and think you are going to wrap it up because you’re the nominee. Clinton is out here all the time.”


But Schneider said California’s pivotal position heightens Wilson’s allure to many Republicans nationally.

“Since California really is the ballgame . . . Pete Wilson becomes an awfully attractive candidate,” Schneider said.

Wilson, reelected to a second term in November, has said he has no plans to run in 1996, but has declined to remove himself from presidential speculation.

The prevailing theory among California Republicans is that Wilson will use the presidential intrigue to increase his national political clout, but that in the end, he will not run.


One reason is that Wilson would leave the governorship in the hands of a Democrat, Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, if he went to the White House. Schneider said that is basically a California concern and that national pundits do not consider it an obstacle to Wilson’s candidacy.

But Schneider also said, “It’s hard to see how Pete Wilson becomes a serious competitor without campaigning in New Hampshire.”

One party official said, “If Wilson is going, and he’s not going today, he’s out of it.”

But others said Wilson’s prodigious fund-raising ability gives him some leeway--at least several months--before he would have to make that decision.


The Republican experts assessed the California credentials of others this way:

DOLE--The early front-runner with plenty of goodwill from campaigning for Republicans in California. Dole is a more attractive candidate than he was in the past--less acerbic, more statesmanlike, they say. He is building a California organization now.

GRAMM--Already has troops in place in California and fund-raisers scheduled. He has impressed many with his meticulous preparation for the campaign. But Gramm is not nearly as well-known in the state as Dole and one Sacramento Republican strategist said Gramm’s Texas drawl and style create a cultural gap for Gramm in California. Gramm supporter Johns expressed his admiration for Dole, but said: “I think we need a young guy. . . . We need a bright guy to take out Clinton.” Gramm is 52. Dole is 71.

QUAYLE--Well liked by many in California from the four years Quayle spent as the Bush Administration’s point man in the state, which Bush avoided. Quayle has contacted many of his California friends about support. Many in California share the view of those nationally who wonder if Quayle has the stature needed to win.


KEMP--The former quarterback for the San Diego Chargers and Buffalo Bills went into politics in Ronald Reagan’s governor’s office in 1967 and maintained close ties to the state through his years as a congressman from New York and housing secretary under Bush. Kemp’s opposition to Proposition 187 last fall hurt him badly with California conservatives. “He’s dead in California,” said one Republican official.

ALEXANDER--Relatively unknown in California, although he has got some attention through his monthly satellite communications program and his reputation as an expert in education. He does not appear to have a California apparatus at this point. One California Republican said Alexander risks being pigeonholed as “a great vice presidential candidate.”

* GRAMM VICTORY: Sen. Phil Gramm wins presidential Arizona straw poll. A3