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GOP candidates squabble as Californians watch from afar

GOP candidates squabble as Californians watch from afar
From left, Republican candidates Ben Carson, Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz at the CNN  presidential debate in Las Vegas. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

Californians are allowed to watch the candidate debates on television. They can read up on the presidential race in the newspaper and hear about it on talk shows. But touching is forbidden.

Actual participation in the selection process for our next commander in chief is essentially off limits to voters in the nation's most populous state.

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Unless, of course, you're wealthy enough to pay a candidate to attend one of his or her fundraisers. Maybe even dig extra deep and have your picture taken with the candidate. But no money, no ticket.

And no vote that really counts. California's presidential primary won't be held until June, long after the nominating contests will have been decided by other states, a near certainty based on history.

The news media always dream of months-long nominating fights and even brokered conventions. There's already such speculation concerning the crowded Republican field. But it's extremely unlikely to happen.

And in November, California is a virtual cinch to award all its electoral votes — 20% of those needed for election — to the Democrat, no matter the candidate. Both nominees understand that and won't bother to campaign here for one minute, using the deep blue state only as a refueling stop to fill up on rich people's money.

It's cruddy for California voters. If you liked or disliked any of the candidates in Tuesday's Republican debate in Las Vegas, there's little you can do about it.

That's unfortunate because it was an entertaining debate that could have ignited some serious GOP political activism in this state, if we mattered.

That is unless you're completely turned off by incivility. Americans, however, seem to be becoming increasingly caustic — from the nation's Capitol down through social media — so the incessant rudeness mouthed by some of these candidates probably fits the times.

The winner? I agree with Jon Fleischman, a conservative blogger and former California GOP official, who called it for billionaire blowhard (my description) Donald Trump. He "won the debate going into it as the frontrunner," Fleischman posted, "and nothing happened at the debate to upset his lead."

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Fleischman added, "again staked out ground as the 'movement conservative' in the race. He and Sen. Marco Rubio [of Florida] sparred with each other, which helped neither."

Some of my observations:

Trump made the only news of the night by promising not to run as an independent if the GOP rejects him as the presidential nominee. That's bad news for Democrats.

But the billionaire just can't help but sound like a horrible boor, as when he accused host CNN of being "very unfair" and then got into it with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

"This is a tough business to run for president," Bush told Trump.

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Trump: "Oh, I know. You're a tough guy, Jeb."

Bush: "You're never going to be president … by insulting your way to the presidency."

Trump: "So far, I'm doing better [than you]."

At one point, Trump sounded more like an isolationist Democrat than a strong-defense Republican, lamenting the $4 trillion the United States has spent fighting Middle East wars. If we'd spent that fixing U.S. infrastructure, he said, "we would've been a lot better off."

Bush was more aggressive than in previous debates, but it came across as desperation.

Cruz sounded like a spoiled, unruly kid when he insisted on talking over co-moderator Wolf Blitzer.

Rubio seemed knowledgeable and almost presidential, but a little thick in the weeds.

Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, slipping fast, seemed to be faking it.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie keeps looking like a bully. And he sounded scary saying he'd risk triggering World War III by shooting down a Russian plane in a no-fly zone.

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky seemed as if he were just along for the ride.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich sounded much too sensible. Listening to all the squabbling on stage, he shouted, "This is why the nation is fed up with the political class."

The best comment came from co-moderator Hugh Hewitt, a conservative talk-show host, in a question to former Hewlett-Packard head Carly Fiorina. So far in the debate, he observed, "we haven't heard a lot about Ronald Reagan's 'city on a hill.' We've heard a lot about … keeping Americans safe and everyone else out. Is this what you want the party to stand for?"

Upbeat Reagan frequently compared America to "a shining city on a hill," a welcoming beacon to "people of all kinds." Fiorina responded only that "we need to stand for solutions."

OK, it doesn't really matter what any of us non-moneybags Californians think anyway.

Blame that on Sacramento.

An early presidential-only primary would cost $100 million, the politicians argue. But that's chump change when considering the cost of democracy, let alone all the other stuff government pays for.

We had early primaries for four elections before 2012, and they were a mixed bag.

In the fall, roughly only eight battleground states will ever see a candidate. Eleven states, including California, have signed compacts that would render the whole country a battleground.

States would be obligated to cast all their electoral votes for the candidate who won the national popular vote. That won't take effect until enough states sign the compact to provide a majority of the electoral votes. Then every individual's vote would count.

The current system is unfair and undemocratic for California's 5 million Republicans and 7.6 million Democrats. That's more than 16 times the number of voters in pipsqueak New Hampshire.

Twitter: @LATimesSkelton

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