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Candidates Shrug Off State’s Early Primary : Politics: Moving California’s election to March was supposed to make it a player in presidential race. But other regions had the same idea, leaving it in 32nd place.

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

It was going to make California count, make it a contender after decades spent watching all those other pipsqueak states decide who among the legions of presidential candidates got to move into the Oval Office.

When California legislators--and Gov. Pete Wilson--agreed two years ago to move the state’s 1996 presidential primary forward from June to March, you could almost hear the silent chortles: Take that, New Hampshire! Back to the farm, Iowa!

And now that the state’s early presidential primary is a mere six months away, the nation’s most delegate-rich state can witness the result:

Nothing.

Sure, the candidates still plumb the state for money, just as they did in the old days. But apart from President Clinton’s trips, there are precious few actual campaign visits and little attention given to the issues peculiar to California. Even Wilson spent more than twice as much time out of state last month than he did tending to matters in Sacramento.

Some candidates still believe that California could ultimately play a big role in selecting the Republican nominee, even given the current dearth of activity. The state, after all, controls about 16%--or 163 of the 991--delegates needed to win the Republican nomination.

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Scenarios abound, with California either putting a runaway victor over the top or deciding between two strong candidates. Then again, it could also add to a muddle of results that would force the nomination to be decided weeks later.

“California is going to play a significant role,” said Mark Helmke, communications director for Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, who announced his candidacy in April. “It’s just that none of us could speculate on what that role is.”

Others in the perennially optimistic corps of campaign activists insist that California won’t matter because the front-runner (their candidate, of course) will have it all sewn up beforehand.

“The problem is that California is too late. This thing is going to end in the industrial Midwest,” said Mike Murphy, a senior aide in the campaign of former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander. Murphy was referring to a ring of primaries to be held the week before California’s.

This underwhelming outcome was utterly predictable, according to campaign seers. And there are both logical and logistic reasons.

California moved its primary up, but only to March 26, six weeks after the campaign-opening Iowa caucuses. Not eager to be left in the dust, a host of other states began to clamor.

New York, with the third-largest delegate pool, moved from early April to early March. Pennsylvania and Ohio moved from late spring to March 19, where they will join Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin in the massive Rust Belt regional primary.

The New England states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont and Maine similarly coalesced into a Yankee primary on March 5--three weeks before California’s primary.

All the movement left California in 32nd place in the 1996 campaign chronology, only slightly better positioned than if it had left the primary in June.

“We were dead last, along with New Jersey and a few other states,” said state Sen. Jim Costa (D-Fresno), who lobbied for an early primary for 14 long years. “We’re better off than we were then. We’re just not significantly better off.”

Because the early primary is a one-year experiment, legislators will have to take up its fate after next year. Costa said that he may propose moving it up even further for the 2000 election.

The state senator initially wanted to set this year’s primary for March 5, which would have made California the first big state on the election calendar. But he compromised with others in the Legislature, who argued that the state is so big that it would swallow up all but the richest candidates. Give the poorer candidates a chance to make their mark in earlier, smaller states, the argument went, and then their momentum could offset their lack of funds in California.

The upshot is this: Candidates are still cozying up to Iowa, whose caucuses are scheduled for Feb. 12, and New Hampshire, whose first-in-the-nation primary will be held eight days later.

They are patting backs and kissing babies in South Carolina, whose primary will be held March 2, on the grounds that it will serve either as a fire wall to block a surging campaign or will redouble the momentum of an earlier winner.

They are courting voters elsewhere in the South, where the Super Tuesday primary will be held March 12 and where voters will decide the fates of at least two of their own, Texas’ Phil Gramm and Tennessee’s Alexander.

All of this makes compelling strategic sense.

“The first focus has to be the first caucus and primaries,” said Charles Robbins, a spokesman for Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter. “They come first and if you don’t perform, you’re out of the game.”

Put another way, it would be political malpractice for a candidate to hang out in California when his time is better spent in the earlier states. Compounding matters is California’s status as a winner-take-all primary. That means a candidate who put all his marbles into the state and pulled, say, 48% of the vote would walk away without a delegate. Many other states dispense their delegates proportionally.

“No candidate is going to make a serious commitment to resources in a March primary simply because there’s no guarantee you’re going to get that far,” said an adviser to one of the campaigns. “It’s a huge gamble to put up that money and risk walking away with nothing.”

Another hindrance to actively campaigning in California is the fact that the state is so far from Washington, where no less than six of the nine Republican candidates are based.

One recent Thursday, for example, Specter jetted from Washington to Boston, held two campaign events and was back in the Capitol for Senate business by lunchtime.

“You can’t do that to California,” said his aide Robbins. “Just because of the geography, all the way on the other side of the country, it’s a real project.”

While the Republican candidates have not spent much time in California, their campaigns are starting to lay the foundations of an effort here.

Wilson’s campaign is rebuilding his longstanding organization, despite prominent defections to other camps and surveys that show the governor losing the state to front-runner Bob Dole of Kansas.

Besides having the only full-fledged campaign office in the state, Wilson’s operation has staffers specifically working to buoy his standing here, said spokesman Dan Schnur.

“For all their talk, none of the other campaigns are putting any time or energy into California at all,” he said. “They file in and out for fund-raisers, but beyond that there’s no indication of any serious organizational effort on the part of any of them.”

Wilson does have a leg up, but his opponents argue that his campaign may have folded by late March or, even if he stays in the race, they may be able to build enthusiasm here from the momentum of earlier victories.

Gramm has made the biggest splash, garnering the support of Republican legislative leaders Curt Pringle and Rob Hurtt, both of Orange County, and a host of activists. U.S. Rep. Christopher Cox of Newport Beach, who is heading Gramm’s California campaign, said the effort so far is a “very well-organized, low dollar” effort.

It will remain entirely a volunteer effort through the end of the year, he said.

“When you’re running statewide in California, it’s important to have money when it counts, not lavishly throw it around months in advance,” Cox said.

Dole has been here infrequently, but has tried to make a big splash when he has come. He salted one Los Angeles fund-raising trip with a high-profile assault on the entertainment industry.

Overall, the Dole campaign said, it has raised $1.5 million in its visits to California.

“Some analysts are suggesting that it will all be over before California,” said Dole spokesman Nelson Warfield. “Our attitude is that we are contesting every state very vigorously. We’re proceeding on the assumption that it is up for grabs.”

Former television commentator Patrick J. Buchanan has made three multi-day fund-raising trips to California since March--the same time frame in which he has visited Iowa 11 times and New Hampshire eight times. His aides say they are putting together networks of volunteers who will fan out in support of Buchanan.

Lugar and Alexander have raised money in California, and Lugar aides said they had particular luck with a direct mail drive that touted his proposal to abolish the Internal Revenue Service and replace income taxes with a national sales tax. Like the latter two, Specter has had a low profile here.

At some point, the Republican nominee will begin fighting the general election war here--one that President Clinton is already waging. Mindful that he needs to win the state in order to be reelected, Clinton has visited California 19 times in less than three years, more than any other state.


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