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Contra Costa Times (California)
Jan 28, 2007 - 01:00 AM

by Steven Harmon, MEDIANEWS SACRAMENTO BUREAU

State's say of primary importance;

Holding election in February instead of June could do more than give voters in California a greater voice
The growing likelihood that California will move its 2008 primary from June to Feb. 5 not only means the state could have a resounding voice in what promises to be a wide-open, power-packed presidential contest, but it also could energize voters, boost Latino political clout and spur political reform.

It also threatens to roil the national campaign: It would compress the nomination process into a dizzying five-week period and force candidates in both parties to dig deep into their war chests to compete in the state's expensive media market.

National political interests, especially the Democratic National Committee, are not fond of the idea because of the enormous cost. The DNC is offering California and other states 97 extra delegates if they hold off.

Others suggest that the estimated $80 million to hold an extra election in California -- the state would still hold elections in June -- might not be worth it, especially if other large states such as Florida, Illinois, New Jersey and Michigan also move up their primaries.

"Every state wants its time in the spotlight, but the more states in it, the less sunlight there is," said Donna Brazile, a top Democratic political strategist, Al Gore's campaign manager in the 2000 presidential election and a national party delegate. "It's a very expensive state to reach millions of voters. California should move to March, like in 2004, and apply for the bonus delegates we're offering."

That's unlikely. For one, state political leaders, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, firmly believe that a February primary is the only way to ensure California is relevant in the process. Moving it to March would cost California just as much and with even less bang for the buck. As for the extra 97 delegates, they ar-gue that's just 97 more irrelevant delegates.

"I'm interested in making California a player," Schwarzenegger said recently. "It's the No. 1 place in the world and we're kind of an afterthought when it comes to the presidential campaign ... (We) want to make California relevant."

A national spotlight -- in which voters would be lavished with attention from the media and candidates -- should translate into a higher voter turnout, particularly among Latinos, said state Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, who wrote one of two bills that seeks to move the primary.

"Making California more relevant will help in terms of voter participation," he said. "Candidates will have to spend more money on voter registration, and they'll come to California knowing there's a powerful Latino bloc. So, it'll empower Latinos, give them a voice on issues like immigration reform and health care."

California -- a perennially blue state in the general election -- will likely send its 55 electoral votes to the Democ-ratic nominee. But Republicans say having an early primary can help motivate their own voters, especially with a field that includes high-profile candidates such as Arizona Sen. John McCain, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

"We've got to find out how to get people to the polls," said Assemblyman George Plescia, R-San Diego, who wrote the other bill to move up the primary. "With an earlier primary, things will matter more."

A February primary might even be the opening that political reformers are seeking in their attempts to change the way political boundaries are drawn and revise term limits for legislators.

Democrats, who aren't crazy about relinquishing map-drawing powers, may give it up if they can get Republicans to agree to include changing term limits in the same ballot initiative. They want legislators to be able to serve in one chamber for 12 years, rather than six years in the Assembly and eight in the Senate -- something that would extend Los Angeles Assemblyman Fabian Nunez's tenure as speaker. If they can get that on the February ballot, and persuade vot-ers to go along with it, legislators who otherwise would be termed out could qualify for the June primary to extend their careers.

"As odd as it may seem," said Republican political strategist Dan Schnur, "the most lasting and most significant effect of the presidential primary may be redistricting and term limits."

Some watchdog groups see the early presidential primary as a backdoor way of pushing through self-serving legislation.

"It seems like the presidential primary is a career preserver in disguise," said Jamie Court, president of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. "Term limits may well need to be adjusted. But it shouldn't be so people in office can keep taking paychecks and taxpayers are saddled with the cost."

As for the cost of an extra election, the bills by Calderon and Plescia both call for the state to reimburse counties. Secretary of State Debra Bowen, who oversees elections in the state, said the desire to make a difference in the presi-dential election outweighs concerns about that cost, as well as voter and poll worker fatigue, and having to speed up a review of the state's voting systems.

"It's an ideal time to give California the clout it deserves," Bowen said. "Given the major implications of this election, it's worth doing."

With as many as 15 states that might hold primaries or caucuses Feb. 5, candidates could end up curtailing lunch-counter campaigning in the intimate confines of New Hampshire and Iowa to compete in the larger states on their heels. Facing advertisement buys of upward of $5 million a week to blanket California media markets, the field of candidates would likely be winnowed faster than usual.

"It will certainly make California a bigger player, but in the larger scheme it'll increase the odds that we'll be choosing among the top-tier candidates," said John Geer, a presidential scholar at Vanderbilt University. "And it puts a premium on the invisible primary, the fundraising circuit."

Even the best-funded candidates would find the new landscape daunting. With primaries and caucuses piling on top of one another, candidates would have to fire up statewide campaign organizations simultaneously across the country, spend millions to get on air and do it in a short time span.

"If there is a change, folks will need to recalibrate their strategies," said Danny Diaz, spokesman for McCain's ex-ploratory campaign. "Certainly it compresses the calendar, puts an emphasis on having a strong organization to be able to communicate your message."

The payoff would be huge for California, but only if it is perceived as carrying some weight in the nominating process, said Darry Sragow, a Democratic strategist, who worries that other states' rush to the front could neutralize some of California's impact.

"It'll energize people tremendously," he said. "If we have that importance, especially with competitive primaries, you could see an incredibly energized political base. The key is not the date, but the perception that we're important."

The effect of the bill:

It would alter the dynamics of the presidential race: Positioning California as one of the key early states would force campaigns to broaden their appeal and spend more money in California.

It would strengthen the Latino vote: If candidates view California as vital, they will spend time organizing get-out-the-vote efforts. Any concerted effort to excite and register voters -- particularly by Democrats -- will lead to a stronger Latino vote, whose growing numbers could give a dark-horse candidate such as New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Latino, some clout.

It would give political reformers new life: Advocates of redistricting and term limit changes would have extra mo-tivation to work out deals this year. Democrats might be willing to entertain redistricting changes if they are linked to term limits, especially if it means elections can be held in February -- before legislators are termed out.

It would put strains on the system: Local registrars complain that the February election would cost from $45 million to $80 million; lawmakers are pledging to cover the costs. Also, Secretary of State Debra Bowen will be forced to accelerate her plans to conduct a thorough review of voting systems.




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