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‘Early’ Primary Fails to Deliver Clout for State

This isn’t over--it hasn’t even begun--but right now you’d have to call California’s “early” presidential primary a bust. The state may yet become the proverbial 900-pound gorilla, but so far it’s looking like a creature of unfulfilled promise with little meaningful future.

It’s still possible California could help choose--not merely confirm--the Republican nominee. Untested Steve Forbes could beat front-runner Sen. Bob Dole in, say, New Hampshire on Feb. 20 or in Arizona Feb. 27, muster momentum and force a showdown in contest No. 32--California--on March 26. The magazine mogul could dump personal millions into the winner-take-all primary and conceivably capture the party’s biggest bloc of delegates, 16% of those needed to win the nomination.

But that’s not where the smart money is. The betting is that Dole wraps it up around the Rust Belt states on March 19--if not, realistically, the Super Tuesday South, March 12. That clatter around Forbes, many politicos intuitively believe, is the news media’s life-support system for a terminally ill race. There’s nothing conspiratorial in that; it’s just the natural order of politics. There will be a contest, weak candidates or not.

Many GOP voters feel the same way. They demand debate and struggle, not a slam dunk. They’re frustrated and not ready to accept the septuagenarian front-runner. But will most, in the end, prefer a single-issue (flat tax) candidate who is a social moderate running in his first race for any office? Or put their money on some plodding dark horse?

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These questions, anyway, are almost irrelevant in California. It’s likely the definitive answers will be given by voters in other states before Californians even are asked.

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It wasn’t supposed to be this way, of course, when California moved up its presidential primary from the first Tuesday in June to the last Tuesday in March. Finally, once again, the nation’s biggest state would wield “clout.”

“I said at the time it was foolhardy to make that assumption,” recalls state Sen. Jim Costa (D-Fresno), who tenaciously had lobbied 14 years in the Legislature for an early primary. California should advance its primary all the way to the first Tuesday in March, he had argued, to prevent other states from getting ahead of it. Which is what they did, leaving California still far back in line.

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In the political tongue, this was called “front-loading.” Primaries were packed into the front of the election calendar, pushing the critical contests for money, endorsements and poll ratings into early 1995. Some potentially strong candidates wanted no part of a two-year sprint and bowed out, including ex-Cabinet secretaries Jack Kemp, Richard Cheney and William Bennett. The result was that a nomination battle that only a few elections ago would now just be warming up may already be played out even before the first votes are cast.

“This is crazy what we did,” says GOP political consultant Sal Russo, referring to the nation’s political establishment, not merely California. “We created a year of havoc and misery. It’s really just a joke. Absurd.”

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What should California do in future presidential elections? “After the dust settles,” Costa says, he’ll introduce legislation to hold a presidency-only primary in early March and a separate state primary for everything else in September.

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The earlier presidential primary would restore that elusive clout. More importantly, he contends, it would prod Congress into enacting a system of regional primaries to stop the front-loading nonsense.

The September state primary, he notes, would shorten the election season and reduce the cost of campaigning.

California, in fact, had a two-primary system for much of this century. There was a presidential primary in early May and a state primary in late August. But in 1944 it switched to a “consolidated primary” that soon became the traditional June election. The stated reason was to make it easier for GIs to vote overseas during World War II.

A separate primary would cost the state roughly $30 million, Costa says.

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Bad idea, say many others. Republicans complain about the extra cost. Democrats worry about small voter turnouts, which mean conservative electorates and trouble for bond issues. Hardly anybody likes this year’s system, which forces state politicians to begin campaigning during the holiday season.

Some want to go back to the old June primary. “We’ve somehow survived as the nation’s leading state without an early primary,” says political consultant Ken Khachigian. “We should be a little less chauvinistic.”

If California really does covet clout, however, it will need to use more gorilla muscle and crowd into the front of the primary line.


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