Times Staff Writer

With Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s backing, state lawmakers from both parties are moving rapidly to make California a player in choosing the nation’s next president by holding the state’s primary four months earlier.

A bipartisan group of state senators introduced legislation Friday to change the 2008 presidential primary from June 3 to Feb. 5. Another bill was introduced by an Assembly Republican on Thursday, the day after Schwarzenegger declared that moving up the primary date would make California “relevant” nationally and was “something to shoot for.”

The February date -- the earliest the state can choose under national party rules -- would place California at the beginning of the election season, right after four states that have secured the most privileged spots in January for their Democratic caucuses or primaries: Iowa (Jan. 14), Nevada (Jan. 19), New Hampshire (Jan. 22) and South Carolina (Jan. 29). The Republican calendar has Iowa and New Hampshire first, with the rest of the schedule in flux.


Contenders, who now bypass California except to raise money, would be forced to establish real presences here.

The huge cost of competing in California -- estimated by one veteran strategist to be $6 million to $8 million per candidate -- would probably require all contenders to accelerate their fundraising and possibly give an edge to those candidates who have already amassed sizable war chests, such as Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), according to operatives in both parties.

Republican moderates such as former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who might face opposition in Southern states for their liberal views on social issues, could benefit from the change.

“If California can succeed in moving up its primary, this truly is an earthquake in presidential national politics and the tremors will be felt through all 49 states,” said Robert Zimmerman, a Democratic National Committee member from New York and presidential fundraiser.

Elevating the clout of California’s primary could change the dynamics of the race. It could push to the forefront issues such as immigration and global warming that might be more important and emotional here than in other areas of the country. But the daunting cost of competing here might also end up forcing candidates who did not win in the first primaries out of the race even earlier than in the past, strategists said.

Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders agree on the importance of an early primary, which they hope will make the presidential contenders pay attention to California and give it the political influence in Washington that they believe the most populous state deserves.


“I mean, right now, think about it: We are the No. 1 state in the union, we’re the No. 1 place in the world, and yet we are kind of an afterthought when it comes to presidential campaigns,” Schwarzenegger told the Sacramento Press Club at a luncheon Wednesday.

An earlier primary could heighten the king-making power of the state’s most visible politicians, including Schwarzenegger and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, with presidential candidates vying for their support. That attention, though, could complicate relationships by pressuring leaders to choose sides and alienate other members of their parties.

The Democratic and GOP leaders of the state Assembly predicted in separate interviews Friday that the move, which leaders have been negotiating privately with Schwarzenegger, would pass with little trouble.

“We’re serious about this, so we’re doing it right,” said Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles). “It makes us major players, and it allows us to put California on the federal map and the national agenda.”

The Republican Assembly leader, Michael Villines of Clovis, agreed. “I don’t think anything stands in our way,” he said. “Have you heard of anyone who’s against it? I haven’t.”

Beyond the first four states, most other primary dates are not yet established.

Two other large states, Florida and Michigan, are also talking about moving up their primaries, and the Democratic National Committee is setting rules to award more influence to states that don’t try to front-load the primary calendar.

Nunez and Senate President Don Perata (D-Oakland) sought to try to blunt such efforts by sending a letter Friday to Howard Dean, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

“We ask the committee to instead adopt rules ensuring that California’s Democrats have a timely and meaningful opportunity to participate in choosing our party’s standard-bearer in 2008,” they wrote Dean, who was traveling and could not be reached for comment Friday evening.

Matthew Dowd, a GOP consultant who has advised both President Bush and Schwarzenegger, said he doubted there would be much resistance.

“The national parties don’t really care except where Iowa and New Hampshire are,” he said.

California’s flirtation with presidential prominence has been turbulent.

The state moved all its primaries up to March for the 2004 election, but by then Sen. John F. Kerry had already effectively won the nomination. State candidates rebelled at the change, which lengthened the campaign season, and lawmakers pushed it back to June.

But the new plan would advance only the presidential primary, not the state primaries. Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders are also talking about placing on that February ballot propositions to try to remove politics from the way election districts are drawn, and to alter term limits for state lawmakers. That latter change is a priority for Nunez, who otherwise will be forced out of the Assembly in 2008.

Negotiators said another key element remains undecided: whether the winner of the California primary would receive all the state’s delegates or whether they would be meted out in proportion to the number of voters won.

Ken Khachigian, a veteran Republican strategist from California, said a winner-take-all primary “would certainly take any second-tier candidate who hit the California lotto, and would just explode them into the front tier. You can win New Hampshire like McCain ... and still get whacked elsewhere.”