California voters Tuesday are going to do something they haven't done in more than a generation: have a say in a closely contested presidential primary. In the wake of the wildest week yet in the 2008 race, voters are expected to come out in record numbers, and what they decide will help shape the final stretch of one of the most intriguing primary seasons in decades. As Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez put it, California's finally "got skin in the game." How long has it been since Californians have had a chance to truly influence a primary race?
On the Democratic side, it was California that gave George McGovern the push he needed to secure the nomination. That was 1972. For Republicans, Californians kept Ronald Reagan's first presidential bid alive in 1976, almost to the convention, where incumbent Gerald Ford prevailed. California has always been a player in primaries when it comes to fundraising, it's just that the election almost always happened too late in the season, leaving voters to rubber-stamp an all-but-certain nominee or give a nod to a California politician's futile bid.
Some argue you really have to go all the way back to the 1964 contest between Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller, when California Republicans sided with Goldwater, an Arizona senator, who became the GOP nominee. With California's decision to move up its primary last year, the delegate-rich state is sharing Feb. 5 with more than 20 other states. So it's unlikely the state alone will be able to claim its voters crowned the nominees or stalled rivals' campaigns. And few are certain when Tuesday's tallies from around the country are added up there even will be a clear leader, particularly in the hugely competitive Democratic contest. Largest prize California, with the most delegates at stake, is Tuesday's largest prize, and even victory by a small margin will carry a lot of influence in the nation's mind.
"We finally have a vote that matters, even if it's not going to be the decisive blow," said Bruce Cain, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California-Berkeley. And it's about time, said Pat Backer, a San Jose State University engineering professor who lives in Fremont. "I came here in 1990 and my vote has never counted," the loyal Democratic primary voter said. "We're going to get to make a difference." And whatever happens Tuesday, California's results will be widely watched. In primary politics, the state has gone from political wallflower to bellwether. Talkingpointsmemo.com , a popular political Web site, handicaps the California contest between Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama like this: "Make no mistake. This will be the race to watch on Tuesday night." That's exactly the role state leaders hoped for in May when they moved up the primary to Feb. 5, the earliest primary in state history. Well-financed Democratic candidates, in particular, have paid plenty of attention to California. They've had campaign staffs here for months and, in recent weeks, have mounted aggressive on-the-ground and media campaigns. With the two final debates for each party held in Southern California last week, candidates of both parties have made campaign stops from San Diego to San Francisco within days of the election. Clinton was in San Jose as late as Friday, and Obama's wife, Michelle Obama, plans a town hall meeting tonight in San Jose. It's a novelty, even for veterans. "I turned on television and saw ads for primary candidates," said Darry Sragow, a longtime Democratic political strategist in Los Angeles. "I can't remember the last time that happened, if ever." Not all traditions have been thrown overboard, however. Early states like Iowa and New Hampshire had their usual outsize say. The contests helped winnow the field to two viable candidates for each party before California's turn. And Florida, which held its primary last week, could turn out to be the kingmaker state for Republican John McCain, if he romps Tuesday. But Mitt Romney is not giving up, making a last-ditch effort in California and a few other key states. This time, the possible roles California will have in the ultimate outcome are numerous. Kingmaker state? Tuesday's vote could produce a clear leader in both parties, providing the victor with a Western tail wind that would be hard to counter. Or, because of the complex delegate counting system, it could produce enough delegates for even the loser of the popular vote to stay in the race. That's more likely to happen on the Democratic side. California polls suggest Clinton and Obama are in an exceedingly tight contest, after a significant surge of support for the Illinois senator in the past two weeks. And it could send McCain, who has a comfortable lead over Romney, to the nomination. In 2000, California's March 7 primary came after nine other states held their primaries or caucuses, and was held on the same day as 13 other contests. California victories for Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore helped them nail down the nominations, but both had fairly good leads before coming into the election. Regardless, the winners of California "can claim bragging rights to the biggest state," said Tony Quinn, a Republican political analyst in Sacramento. Until 1996, California held its primary in June. That year, the state, seeking more influence, moved it to March. But it didn't work. A lot of other states leapfrogged California. By the time the 2004 primary was held March 2, Democrat John Kerry had picked up victories in 18 of 20 states. (President Bush had no serious competition.) Fewer than 40 percent voted, a modern-era record low. This time, competitive races have prompted predictions of the highest turnout for a presidential primary since 1980. The state association of registrars says to expect 56 percent of eligible voters to cast ballots; others estimate it could be as high as 60 percent. Just once in the past six presidential primaries have more than 50 percent of registered voters bothered to cast ballots. Voters are jazzed. Registration figures released Friday showed a record 15.7 million Californians - 68.5 percent of eligible adults - have registered to vote in Tuesday's primary, 700,000 more than in advance of the 2004 primary. A record 5.5 million have requested absentee ballots. Turnout is key And voter turnout will be crucial, especially in the tight Democratic race. Clinton is counting on Latinos, Obama on young voters and those registered as decline-to-state. The latter can only participate in the Democratic primary, and they have an extra hurdle: When they go to the polls, they must request a Democratic ballot. "What makes this much more interesting is that both sides are relying on a block of voters that don't always turn out," said Leon Panetta, a Clinton supporter and founder of the Panetta Institute for Public Policy at California State University-Monterey Bay. Cain said California's proportional system used by Democrats could favor Obama. That's because congressional districts where he might do well, including several in Northern California where he runs strongest, carry slightly more weight than others. Bottom line: If it's a close Democratic contest in California, the delegate-count margin between winner and loser may be tight. The Republican contest is clearer. If Florida cemented McCain's front-runner status, California, where the senator from Arizona is well-known, could put him over the top. Key endorsements last week, including by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, has helped him solidify his lead in the state. Even so, Romney is trying to pick off delegates in the state's more conservative congressional districts. In each of the state's 53 districts, the GOP winner gets three delegates. "John has the advantage," said Ken Khachigian, a veteran Republican campaign manager, who ran Bob Dole's 1996 effort. But he added, "There are a lot of people who still don't have a champion." On the Democratic side, Panetta likened the excitement, especially among young voters, to what he felt leading up to the epic and tragic 1968 Democratic primary race in which Californians went to polls in droves and voted for Robert F. Kennedy over Eugene McCarthy. Just hours after winning the primary, Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles. Again, young voters "could be the edge," Panetta said. "This one really counts. We haven't for a long time."
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