Primary focus is on California

Times Staff Writer

The first meaningful California presidential primary campaign in decades swirled to a close with a final round of candidate appeals, advertisements, mailers and door-knocking -- and a boatload of uncertainty over exactly when the outcome will be decided.

On the final weekend before election day, Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton were locked in a tumultuous battle for the 370 California delegates at stake Tuesday, while Republican John McCain had his eye on 170 Republican delegates as he sought to dispatch Mitt Romney.

When the candidates were not parading through the state, their surrogates were. As Hillary Clinton campaigned in Inglewood and at Cal State L.A., the 2004 party nominee, John Kerry, stumped for Obama in Northern California. Today, in an only-in-Hollywood turn, former President Clinton and Obama backers Oprah Winfrey and Caroline Kennedy will highlight events in Los Angeles.

It was not simply a statewide battle. With two dozen states voting Tuesday, California's race was defining and, in turn, being shaped by the contests outside its borders. And since the delegates will be apportioned according to results in each congressional district -- not in a statewide popularity contest -- the campaigns were breaking into dozens of mini-contests across California.

And that did not count the other contested matters on the ballot. Four measures, which have dominated the airwaves for weeks, would let stand compacts approved by the governor and Legislature that permit select Indian tribes to expand their casinos. Another would reorder term limits, and another would change community colleges' funding.

But there was an awkward side effect to the scrappy campaign: Up to 20% of the votes could remain uncounted on election day, according to Secretary of State Debra Bowen.

Bowen declined to estimate what proportion of voters would turn out Tuesday. She cited several reasons, among them the early date of the primary and the heated contests in both major parties that have drawn historic turnouts in every state that has cast ballots already.

"I would be taking such a wild guess," she said.

The vote-counting was expected to be slowed by several factors. First, the sheer number of all voters has grown dramatically in the weeks before the election.

All told, 700,000 more Californians are registered to vote now than before the 2004 presidential primary, Bowen said Friday. Included in that total were more than 244,000 voters who signed up in the 45 days before the Jan. 22 registration deadline -- as the presidential race was heating up.

The figures canted Democratic: The recent registrants included more than 150,000 Democrats, compared with almost 40,000 Republicans.

The percentage of voters who actually cast ballots is also expected to be high, according to elections and campaign officials. In the last presidential primary without an incumbent in the race, in 2000, nearly 54% of registered California voters participated.

But Tuesday's expected volume is only part of the reason the results will probably be delayed. About half of the ballots are expected to be cast either by mail or by voters who drop off mail-in ballots at precincts. Those ballots can take longer to tally because elections officials are required to check signatures against the registration file.

State law allows officials to tabulate those ballots beginning one week before the election, and the totals are the first results released on election night.

But when the polls close, officials turn to counting the precinct votes, leaving the rest of the mail-in ballots and the laborious checking process until after the traditional votes are counted.

The result may be hundreds of thousands of ballots being slowly counted at a time when television and Internet viewers are expecting to see definitive results pop onto their screens.

"Everyone is going to be grumpy," Bowen predicted. "But no one will ever forgive me if we get it wrong."

To California political activists who have labored for years under the mantra that the state doesn't matter in the presidential primaries, 2008 has been the campaign that brought back wonderment.

For years the primary was in June, a placement so late that not since the Nixon administration had results from California had any bearing on the nominations. A move into March was checkmated by other states, which leapfrogged ahead to cast deciding votes.

The same appeared to be the case this year, when about two dozen states joined the Feb. 5 bandwagon. Yet while that certainly means that California will not have the deciding role Tuesday, the state has at least been part of the action.

"There has not been this much enthusiasm and visibility for a presidential primary for decades in California," said Bob Mulholland, a Democratic Party advisor who suffered through the fallow years. This year, he added, "was like a play that couldn't have been written in Hollywood, even if they weren't on strike."

Much of the enthusiasm has surrounded the Democratic race, for reasons political and structural. With the exception of the governor's office, Democrats have controlled politics in the state for more than a decade, and much of the national party's fundraising and activist base resides here.

Democrats are the majority party, but their ranks will be swelled this year by some of the state's independent voters. They will be allowed to request a ballot for either the Democratic or American Independent party, but they cannot vote in the Republican primary.

By the Jan. 22 cutoff, state elections officials said, 19.37% of voters were those who "decline to state" a party preference. Democrats were at almost 43%, Republicans at just over 33%.

The Democratic contest has unfolded like a classic establishment-versus-upstart race -- except Obama is better-financed and organized than most challengers. Clinton has led in independent polls since the race began, although her margin has steadily slipped as the election has neared. Her strengths as a candidate match the demographics of the state party -- she has run strongly among women, Latinos and those with lower incomes.

Obama has struggled to break out of his campaign's reliance on upper-income voters, whites and independents -- the electoral profile that has doomed similar challengers. But his blistering fundraising has given him a greater reach to voters attracted to him since his win in Iowa.

By the weekend, he was airing ads in large cities and in smaller media markets like Salinas, where he hoped to appeal to those wavering in their support for Clinton. Late good news came in a Friday endorsement from the 650,000-member state Service Employees International Union.

"We do feel like we are in a competitive race here in California, because of the resources that Sen. Obama has been able to secure," spokeswoman Debbie Mesloh said.

Clinton's campaign was holding on to its confidence that the party's demographics and its effort to court mail-in voters would pay dividends. Her race has been conducted like trench warfare, with every move by Obama resulting in a countermove by her.

As the weekend loomed, Clinton was seeking to thwart U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's campaigning for Obama with the release of a commercial featuring Kennedy's nephew.

"This election has been going on for 29 days, and we feel really good about the votes cast already," said Ace Smith, Clinton's state director, referring to the campaign's ability to withstand a late surge by Obama.

The Republican race has had even more twists than the Democratic contest. In just the last two weeks, according to Times polls, it has gone from a four-man bundle to a strong lead by McCain over Romney. The duo's tense debate Wednesday night underscored the stakes.

Even though independents cannot vote in the party primary, McCain has gone out of his way to court middle-of-the-road voters who tip the balance in general elections. He emphasized global warming along with support for the war in Iraq. And he reveled in the endorsement of Schwarzenegger, who sided with McCain on Wednesday.

"He's a crusader, has a great vision, in protecting the environment and also protecting the economy," Schwarzenegger said of McCain.

Though Romney was running second to McCain in a Times poll published several days ago, his campaign has spent more time organizing in California. He was trying to coalesce discomfort with McCain in some GOP n circles into a battle for what he called the "heart and soul" of the Republican Party. He was airing ads -- McCain was not -- and hoping for independent judgment from Californians.

"In most cases, people make up their own mind," he said Thursday in Long Beach.

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cathleen.decker@latimes.com

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