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Feb. vote lifts clout of state’s leaders

Times Staff Writer

A few Fridays ago, Hillary Clinton visited Antonio Villaraigosa and his family at the mayor’s official residence in Windsor Square for what a mayoral aide described as a “relaxed and personal” conversation.

But the evening’s competitive courtship of Villaraigosa had just begun: Later that night, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina took him to dinner.

California’s politicians, used to being largely ignored in presidential politics, are being wooed with vigor as candidates for the White House look for guidance, endorsements and money in the Golden State’s newly relevant 2008 presidential primary.

Candidates have also stepped up their public appearances in usually forsaken areas of the state and are starting to show keen interest in issues that national candidates have rarely bothered to learn about.

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Soon Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is expected to sign a bill advancing the presidential primary to Feb. 5. That will mean only four states -- Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada -- will hold their votes before California.

Though many other large states may also hold primaries the same day as California, this state will inevitably offer the largest number of delegates, transforming a place that has often been an afterthought in the primary campaigns into a meaningful player.

“The state needs to be harvested in a political way that hasn’t happened in a long time,” said Chris Lehane, a Democratic political strategist close to Clinton, the junior senator from New York.

Campaigns that until recently had been focused elsewhere are now rushing to do just that.

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On the Democratic side, much of the courting has been aimed at Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez of Los Angeles and Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata of Oakland. Though the legislators may be less known to the public than Villaraigosa or San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, their endorsements are valued because they have sway with the state’s unions and their armies of voters and potential campaign workers.

In Washington earlier this month, Nunez was invited to Barack Obama’s Senate office for a half-hour chat. He has also met privately with Clinton at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. When the speaker and a contingent of Assembly members go to Washington next week to lobby for more federal money for California, they will also meet with both of those candidates and Edwards.

Rank-and-file state legislators have also received unexpected attention from national politicians. Those lawmakers hold special appeal for their mastery of districts which, in the case of the state senators, are larger than the ones held by members of Congress.

On Feb. 22, state Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) was invited to a 60-person dinner with Clinton in West Hollywood. Kuehl, who has been pushing to replace the state’s private insurers with government-run healthcare for all, did not think Clinton even knew who she was. But when Clinton saw Kuehl, “she said, ‘Oh, sit down, I want to talk to you about healthcare,” Kuehl recalled.

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Kuehl said she is supporting Clinton. “The other people didn’t ask me,” she said. “It’s not like I’m the most famous person in the world.”

The courtship of Republicans has been even more focused on local politicians, in part because of the nature of that party’s primary. While Democratic delegates will be apportioned to each candidate based on the percentage of the statewide vote they win, all the GOP delegates in each of the state’s 53 congressional districts will go to the biggest vote-getter in each region.

“If you get the endorsement of the incumbent [member of Congress], that could have a big impact,” said Allan Hoffenblum, a GOP consultant from Los Angeles.

The GOP’s state legislators, used to being ignored or steamrolled by the Democrats, who hold the majority in Sacramento, are suddenly finding themselves in demand.

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Michael Villines of Clovis, the leader of the Assembly’s Republicans, said U.S. Sen John McCain (R-Ariz.) met with a dozen caucus members in Sacramento on Sunday. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is scheduled to see Republican legislators here today.

Former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani met with legislators when he was in Sacramento last month to headline a state GOP convention, then headed off to a farm exposition in Fresno.

“Presidential candidates, they just don’t show up in Fresno,” Villines said. “It’s clear we are driving those candidates here early.... Clearly they are going to places in the state they haven’t been before. I really like that.”

Villines said local politicians are getting opportunities to press the candidates on issues of particular importance to California, such as immigration, in ways they never could before.

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“Typically somebody would walk into caucus and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to be with McCain’ and you’d sign a letter,” Villines said. “You wouldn’t talk to the candidate; you wouldn’t meet the campaign manager.”

Now, Villines said, “we’re meeting the candidates and they’re taking positions and sharing views. You’re seeing a change in their dialogue.”

Sean Clegg, a deputy Los Angeles mayor, said candidates are figuring out that they cannot rely on a victory in the first primaries to generate enough momentum to carry California. Although what happens in those states will certainly have an influence, Clegg noted that more Californians are using absentee ballots even if they will not be away from home on election day.

Because those voters tend to fill out their ballots shortly after receiving them, “a lot of the California vote will be locked in before Iowa and New Hampshire,” Clegg said.

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“The primary moving up has put every campaign in a scramble,” he said.

Presidential contenders are quickly learning which courting methods may give them an edge. Clegg said Villaraigosa “is a relationship person, so this is not a process where we’re asking people about anything except about how we can build a good strong relationship going forward.

“The mayor’s meetings have been focused on spending time with the candidates, as an Iowa voter or New Hampshire voter would,” he said.

Newsom also has not committed to any candidate, but his campaign spokesman, Peter Ragone, hinted that Newsom’s history with the Clintons -- including their support when he ran for mayor in 2003 -- is significant to the mayor, who Ragone said has never met Obama, the junior senator from Illinois.

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“Sen. Clinton has been very helpful and very supportive of the mayor over the years,” Ragone said.

More than any other Californian politician, Schwarzenegger has broadcast that his allegiance will be determined by which candidate addresses the subjects most important to him.

“How do they want to address healthcare issues, immigration issues and all those things?” he said at a luncheon of Sacramento reporters in January. “So I want to hear the candidates talk about those things, and then I can start thinking about, is there anyone in there that I will endorse, or that I will campaign for?”

The candidates are doing whatever it takes to win that support. Last month, McCain joined Schwarzenegger for an aerial tour of truck traffic from the Port of Long Beach, a subject of great interest to the governor but not one known to have previously concerned the Arizona senator.

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In brief public remarks afterward, McCain managed to thank Schwarzenegger five times as he praised the governor’s efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions and ticked off areas where they agreed. When a reporter asked the governor if the joint appearance meant he would endorse McCain, the senator jumped in.

“I think it’s the endorsement, yes,” he said to laughter.

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jordan.rau@latimes.com

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