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Thomas D. Elias: Pundits read Calif. tea leaves

Want a good chuckle? You can get one at least every four years just by checking out Eastern pundits trying to read California tea leaves.

They do this in each election cycle, often using the early phases of the California primary campaign as an excuse to escape brutal Eastern and Midwestern winters.

Right now, they appear to be ramping up for their usual round of inaccurate predictions. Go back to 1992 and you'll see that the Washington Post's sainted pundit David Broder predicted a California win for President George H.W. Bush. Wrong. Go back to the 2003 recall election, and you'll find the Christian Science Monitor calling the recall an example of California "lunacy" that was sure to fail. The New York Times called it "loco."

And in 2004, George W. Bush's top political hand Karl Rove observed that "If (you're a Republican and) you play in California, all kinds of things are possible." Gong. Sorry, Karl. On your advice, Bush spent more than $18 million in California and lost the state to lackluster Democratic candidate John Kerry, who spent almost nothing here.

Now comes a new Washington, D.C. newspaper and website called The Politico, whose experts say, "California is a golden chance to reclaim the national mantle" (for whom?) and that "California is fundamentally an (ordinary) Western state, except for Los Angeles and Hollywood."

That last suggests that most of California is solidly Republican outside Los Angeles. Huh? Has somebody forgotten the San Francisco Bay Area, perhaps the greatest hotbed of liberal politics in America? It's a region that's produced the likes of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and virtually no Republican members of Congress in the last 20 years.

Star-struck

When you are star-struck, it's easy enough to disregard the Bay Area, with population as large as all but two Eastern states. Right.

Star-struck is also about the only explanation for some Republicans calling California a competitive state in 2008. Sure, the state has a nominally Republican governor in Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has won two elections. But he did that more with starpower than Republican politics. In fact, when he tried being a doctrinaire Republican in the 2005 special election, he was shot down hard and has acted the moderate-to-liberal Democrat ever since.

And then there are the "experts" who were already handicapping an early February California primary even before legislators set it up.

The conventional wisdom among the Broders and George Wills and David Brookses et al has been that Arizona Sen. John McCain enjoys a natural advantage over the GOP field here because he hails from a neighbor state.

This is somehow supposed to give California Republicans more of an affinity for him, even though he's against a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, has never fought against gun controls and has fought for campaign finance reforms, all issues where he disagrees with the typical voter in this state's GOP primary elections.

Yet, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has campaigned for just as many losing California Republican candidates for statewide office as McCain, and spent far more time helping 2002 candidate William Simon than McCain ever did. The Eastern pundits give him a good shot too, despite his divorce woes and his support for gay rights, both anathema to conservative Republicans.

And the fact that ex-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is a Mormon is somehow supposed to give him a big leg up here, on the assumption that California Mormons are as conservative as he is and would vote for any Mormon just because of his faith. That's about as dumb as the old pre-John Kennedy assumption that all Catholics will vote for any Catholic and the current presumption in some places that blacks will vote for blacks just because of their skin color, and issues be damned. That presumption won't work here for Romney any more than it will for the darker-skinned Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois on the Democratic side.

The fact is, the one potential Republican candidate almost no one mentions is the one for whom California GOP primary voters might have the most affinity – former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, who has championed every conservative cause dear to those voters' hearts, from fighting abortions and gun-control to opposing any new tax for any purpose. Gingrich runs second in some early polls here even without campaigning.

Surprises

Given the congressional district-by-district winner-take-all nature of this state's GOP primary, which makes it essentially 53 little primaries run simultaneously, it's hard to see Gingrich not winning in quite a few arch-conservative districts if he runs. If he does, what happens to Giuliani, McCain and the other presumed leaders?

All of which means the moved-up California primary most likely holds plenty of surprises in store – especially for out-of-state observes who think they understand this state because they've visited once or twice and talked to a politician or two, but really don't know it at all.

Reach Thomas D. Elias, a long-time California political reporter: This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

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