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Early primary? Big uncertainties but little action

All the talk about California holding its earliest-ever presidential primary next year raises three questions.

* Are the legislators going to just talk about it or actually pass a bill moving the primary from June 3 to Feb. 5? So far nothing really has happened.

* Because of California’s immense size, would crowding-in near the front of the primary line be disastrous for the national nominating process?

* Which candidates would benefit?

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As for whether legislative leaders and the governor are serious, they say they are. But nobody’s treating it as an urgent matter.

You’d think they would want to erase any doubt, firm up the date and allow Californians to start reaping the benefits. Force the candidates to spend some money out here. Compel them to start talking about our special issues: Illegal immigration, water, pollution -- and the state constantly getting shortchanged by the feds.

The longer the delay in setting this up, the longer California voters will be ignored -- all, that is, except the high-rolling campaign donors able to pay handsomely for private audiences.

During the 2004 presidential campaign, according to state Democratic Chairman Art Torres, $184 million was raised in California and “not a penny was spent in the state. We’re the ATM for national politics.”

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Not to worry, some important legislators assure. The bill is greased.

“Everybody is on board,” says Sen. Ron Calderon (D-Montebello), new chairman of the Senate elections committee. When Senate leader Don Perata (D-Oakland) chose him to head the committee, Calderon adds, “he said it was one of the things he wanted accomplished.”

But some sound like they’ve got only one foot on board.

“I’ll look at it,” is all Senate Republican Leader Dick Ackerman of Irvine will promise.

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Ackerman is skeptical of an early primary’s benefits. He recalls that California previously held March primaries in an attempt to play presidential politics, but still wound up on the bench as the nominations were all but being decided in February by momentum-generating pipsqueak states.

Never before, however, has there been a proposal to move the California primary clear up to early February.

“The key” to passage of the primary bill, Ackerman says, is the Legislature negotiating a package of term-limit flexibility and redistricting reform that would go on the same ballot.

Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) is pushing that and it’s why he’s advocating an early primary. A term-limit measure, if approved by voters early next year, would allow him to remain as speaker after 2008.

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Many other lawmakers also could keep their seats for a while, rather than running for the other house.

But Nunez professes that moving up the primary “stands on its own” and doesn’t hinge on a term-limits/redistricting deal. “We want to make California finally a player in the national political debate.”

I’ll take his word for it and assume there’ll be a Feb. 5 presidential primary.

Critics worry, however, that too many big states will “front-load” the primary calendar and make it financially impossible for poor underdog candidates to compete. Florida, Illinois and New Jersey also are talking about moving up to Feb. 5. Eight other states already are planning to hold Democratic contests on that date in Week 3 of what could be a very compressed primary/caucus season.

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“California may move from being an irrelevant afterthought to becoming a killing field [for candidates] if the primary is moved up too early,” says Democratic consultant Garry South. In 1976, he notes, little-known former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter “came from far back of the pack to win Iowa. If his next hurdle had been California, I wonder how he would have fared.”

Probably not very well. He never carried California even after he became well known.

I don’t buy the argument that the nation is better served by hog farmers in Iowa and cafe patrons in New Hampshire choosing our presidents. It’s nice that they get to chat personally with the candidates, but I don’t like them deciding for me.

If nothing else, mix it up and rotate the kickoff states. Let Iowa and New Hampshire whine and pout.

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The current system is out of control. The national parties should muster some guts and create an orderly nominating process.

By moving up to Feb. 5, California can pressure the parties into doing that -- and help itself in the meantime.

And which candidates would it help? That’s easy. It would benefit the best-known with the most money.

“If you don’t have the big bucks and massive name ID going into California, you’re in trouble,” notes Republican strategist Ken Khachigian.

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Says South: “If anybody wants to compete in California, it’s going to be a sinkhole for most of their campaign treasury.”

But probably not for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-New York). She expects to raise well over $100 million by then. With her FOB (“Friends of Bill”) connections throughout California, an early primary should greatly benefit her.

Clinton could wrap it up here. Or if she should stumble in Iowa or New Hampshire, the senator could use her stash in California to “squash Barack Obama like a bug,” says Democratic strategist Darry Sragow.

But Obama, Democratic senator from Illinois, also is gaining rich Hollywood friends. And if his star were still rising, Obama’s inspirational message of hope could especially resonate with California Democrats, who historically have been drawn to charismatic candidates when they run.

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Among Republicans, both Arizona Sen. John McCain and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani would have the IDs and presumably the bankrolls to compete strongly.

Each has a particular advantage in a California GOP primary: McCain is a neighboring Westerner from Goldwater country. Giuliani exudes 9/11 leadership.

But we really won’t know which candidates will benefit for about a year. Then all California voters will get to answer the question.

*

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George Skelton writes Monday and Thursday. Reach him at george.skelton@latimes.com.


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