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EARLIER PRIMARY GIVES CALIFORNIA A MAJOR VOICE

Times Staff Writers

Having already forced many campaigns to rethink their strategies, California made it official Thursday: The state’s presidential primary will advance to Feb. 5.

The shift, signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, vaults California ahead of most other states in the national scramble to choose candidates. It has sent ripples across the country, pushing other states to follow and setting up Feb. 5 as a de facto national primary.

But many analysts say that won’t diminish the importance of the two traditional proving grounds, Iowa and New Hampshire. In fact, the experts say, the need to build early momentum could make the two leadoff states more important than ever.

Still, there was a celebratory air here surrounding California’s move, intended to increase the state’s clout in the nominating process now that it will no longer be nearly the last to vote. “We’re shaking things up,” said Democratic strategist Darry Sragow, “and we’ll see what happens.”

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Schwarzenegger said the new primary date, four months earlier than the old one, already has raised California’s status among presidential hopefuls. He noted that many candidates have visited in recent weeks to troll for endorsements and learn about the state’s concerns.

“Holding our presidential primaries in June used to mean nominees were locked before we ever had a chance to vote,” the governor said. “I’m happy to say these days are over....We will get the respect California deserves.”

Schwarzenegger signed the measure in the courtyard of a former governors’ mansion a block from the Capitol. The restored structure was the site of an 1880 visit by Rutherford B. Hayes, the first sitting president to come to California.

The new law changes only the presidential primary election. Voters will still choose among legislative, congressional and lo-cal candidates on June 3, 2008.

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California has moved its presidential primary before, to March, but other states jumped ahead. Lawmakers called the move a failure and complained that it depressed voter turnout. In 2004, Schwarzenegger signed a bill returning both the statewide and presidential primary elections to June.

The full effect of the latest shift will not be clear for several months. The national Democratic and Republican parties will take at least that long to set their nominating calendars, and campaign strategists cannot make final decisions about deploying their money and manpower until then.

Only New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina and Nevada now will choose nominees before California, but eight other states are tentatively scheduled to vote Feb. 5. And more than a dozen are eyeing the same date, for fear of being shut out of the campaign action if they hold their elections any later.

“Nothing will be over until California votes, so if you go on Feb. 5 you’re guaranteed a voice,” said Rhodes Cook, an elections expert and Washington publisher of a nonpartisan guide to politics. “You’re not guaranteed that on Feb. 6 or later.”

Ironically, the rush to Feb. 5 may reinforce the dominance of the earliest-voting states, which have long drawn enormous amounts of time and attention from the presidential contenders -- to the frustration of lawmakers in places such as California.

Iowa and New Hampshire are again scheduled to hold the first caucus and primary, respectively. Democrats have added Nevada to their early lineup in January, and South Carolina is expected to be the second primary state for both parties.

Given the number and scope of the contests to follow on Feb. 5, campaign analysts agree that momentum will be the most important factor heading into the day -- and it must be built in Iowa, New Hampshire and the other leadoff states.

“A candidate can’t be flailing and expect to save themselves in California,” said Don Sipple, a Republican strategist in Santa Barbara.

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Bill Carrick, an L.A.-based Democratic consultant, agreed. “No one will have the financial resources necessary to compete in all those states” that want to vote in early February, Carrick said. “Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina will be all the more important.”

The candidates may not be holding kaffee klatches in Hemet or town hall meetings in Auburn the way they do in Hanover, N.H., or Altoona, Iowa. But they have been attending rallies and other public appearances in addition to their usual rounds of closed-door fundraising in California.

Earlier this month, Democratic candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York addressed several hundred volunteers who had gathered to pick up trash and plant flowers in Los Angeles. One of her opponents, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, attracted several thousand people at a Crenshaw ball field and is scheduled to appear at a rally Saturday in Oakland.

On the Republican side, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Sen. John McCain of Arizona both met with GOP lawmakers this week in Sacramento. Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani attended an agricultural trade show in Tulare, among other stops in California last month.

“It’s already accomplished what we set out to do,” said Sen. Ron Calderon (D-Montebello), author of SB113, the bill moving California’s primary forward. “The candidates for president are already in California, they’re already going to places they’ve never been before.”

In another novelty for the state, Californians may soon see television ads for and against presidential candidates, said strategist Sragow. But with the cost of air time statewide at “easily” $2 million a week, he said, some campaign managers may decide that they can have a greater impact in several other states for the same price.

“California could suck every penny out of a campaign,” said Sragow.

Some Republican candidates could opt to run different campaigns within California, because the party will award delegates to the top vote-getters in each of the state’s 53 congressional districts. Democratic delegates will be apportioned to each candidate based on the percentage of the statewide vote that they win.

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Former Republican state Sen. Jim Brulte, now a consultant, said some candidates may target the cheaper media markets of Santa Barbara or Chico or mail political ads to the relatively few Republicans who live in places such as Los Angeles and San Francisco.

“You could have four or five Republicans take delegates out of California,” said Brulte.

Next February’s ballot could also include at least one important ballot measure. An advisor to Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) has submitted a proposed initiative that would change California’s term-limits law, allowing current lawmakers to stay longer but reducing the number of years permitted for those who come later.

If the measure qualifies for February and passes, Nunez and 33 other legislators who would otherwise be ousted next year can run again in June.

Allan Hoffenblum, co-editor of the California Target Book, a nonpartisan guide to legislative and congressional races, said the only safe prediction about the shakeout of the state’s rescheduled primary is that the law of unintended consequences will prevail.

“Fabian Nunez’s desire to seek reelection,” he said, “could end up having a significant impact on who the next president is going to be.”

nancy.vogel@latimes.com


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