California Focus

Thomas D. Elias

The more time presidential candidates from both major parties spend in California, the more clear it becomes that moving up this state's presidential primary from early next June to early next February is succeeding fabulously as a tactic.

It's true, as some critics say, that the date change will allow state legislators an attempt at passing a ballot proposition that would let some of them stay in office up to six years longer than today's term limits permit. So there's little doubt their eagerness to move up the primary was at least partly self-serving.

But that doesn't change the fact that the move is already a spectacular success on other, unrelated grounds.

The reality of political life in California for the last 36 years has been that this state meant little or nothing in the presidential selection process. Rather than the nation's most populous, inventive state having a major say in who the two major parties would nominate, for decades those decisions have been made mostly by voters in far smaller states like New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina.

By moving its vote up to Feb. 5, backers of the switch including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger figured, California would force presidential candidates of all stripes to use the state as more than just a cash machine. They would now have to spend time campaigning here, not just hobnobbing with big-bucks contributors but also dealing with ordinary voters. They would also have to invest some of the money raised in California back into advertising campaigns in California. And they would have to stake out positions on issues important to Californians, from water and offshore oil to immigration, energy efficiency and conditions in the state's racial ghettos and barrios.

Cattle call

All that is already happening more than seven months before the primary.

One example: The state Democratic Party convention staged in San Diego on the last weekend in April drew every major Democratic candidate for president. Politicians scornfully call that sort of ingathering a andquot;cattle call.andquot; But the last time California saw an all-inclusive cattle call was when the party meeting was held in Sacramento in 1984.

Similarly, every declared Republican candidate for president turned up at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley for the primary season's first GOP debate. The campaign's first debate had never before been staged in this state.

The fact all these candidates came here scarcely more than a month after the date shift became official shows they know they now must romance California as much as they do Iowa.

What can that mean? Look at what one early primary campaign promise has meant to Iowa: In December of 1999, Republican candidate George W. Bush assured that state's myriad corn farmers he would push development of ethanol-bearing fuels. He's done just that, enriching those farmers as he increased the value of Iowa corn crops by billions of dollars.

Now candidates are making promises in California, too, rather than waiting until they've won the White House and then dealing with issues that are important here.

Once the Democrats' convention was over, candidates fanned out across the state. Illinois Sen. Barack Obama went to South Los Angeles, promising to spend money now used for the war in Iraq on rebuilding projects in that area and other poor ethnic ghettos.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson went to a San Francisco rally and promised to tear down the now-a building fence along the Mexican border, calling it a andquot;terrible symbolandquot; that sends the wrong message to a friendly neighbor.

Like those positions or not, how likely would either candidate have been to make those promises in Iowa or New Hampshire? Not very, as neither inner cities nor illegal immigration are key issues in those previously decisive and still important states.

Boo hoo, candidates

Yes, the early primary puts a burden on candidates, who will be racking up many more frequent flier miles than in previous campaigns. andquot;It puts an enormous burden on me and my campaign,andquot; New York Sen. Hillary Clinton told a reporter. andquot;Obviously, we have to cover a lot more ground and raise a lot more money.andquot;

The candidates also will have to learn a lot about this huge chunk of America that they previously almost ignored.

Which means that even if some votes for moving it up were cast for selfish reasons, the Feb. 5 primary has already changed California's role in presidential politics - exactly as it was supposed to do.

Reach Thomas D. Elias, a long-time California political reporter: