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More Clout and Some Fun for California

September 06, 1993|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Book that old mariachi band for an East Los Angeles rally. Find some convertibles. Charter an Amtrak for a whistle-stop up the San Joaquin Valley.

Better also rent an antiseptic room for "town hall" television, a la Phil Donahue. That's the latest gimmick.

The candidates for presidential nominations are returning after an absence, in effect, of nearly a quarter-century--since California's primary stopped mattering.

When the Assembly this week votes final passage and Gov. Pete Wilson signs the bill--both virtual certainties--California's 1996 presidential primary will be moved up to the fourth Tuesday in March from the first Tuesday in June. It's a one-year pilot project that puts us in the middle of the primary season instead of at the tail end, after 85% of the convention delegates already have been chosen.

Using the 1992 primary calendar as a guide, it means the California contest will be six weeks after New Hampshire's, but only two weeks after Super Tuesday, one week after Illinois and Michigan and two weeks before New York. It means more Clout for California in choosing the nominees.

"It means a candidate can make a big impression and still ignore those other pieces of crap. I'm so tired of hearing about Iowa and New Hampshire," says consultant Joseph R. Cerrell of Los Angeles, a veteran of presidential politics.


It also means 2 1/2 years of speculation by us political junkies--cogitation that is meaningless, but nevertheless irresistible.

So which candidates benefit from an earlier primary? Californians, of course, and anybody with a lot of money. Also people with wide name identification.

The Republican primary figures to be the more crucial for two reasons: It is winner-take-all, with the victor capturing all the delegates--a whopping 20% of the total needed to nominate. In the Democratic primary, delegates are allotted in proportion to a candidate's vote. Secondly, the GOP nomination will be wide open because the party has no incumbent.

If Wilson should win reelection--a very big if but becoming more conceivable--the drama of his comeback could vault him into contention. "As I told Pat Brown in 1959, the governor of California--like the governor of New York--will always be considered for a spot on the national ticket," says Cerrell. "Now, that's been enhanced by giving the governor an opportunity to really come on strong."

A more likely scenario is that former New York Rep. Jack Kemp, the HUD secretary in the George Bush Administration, will be the main beneficiary. Kemp has California roots, having grown up in Los Angeles and been a star quarterback for the San Diego Chargers. He also has a conservative philosophy that agrees with the California GOP. And he already is organizing here.

But a wild card is Ross Perot, should he decide to seek the Republican nomination. Perot has limitless money, name identification and a flexible ideology. He attracted 24% of the California GOP vote in the 1992 presidential election, according to a Times exit poll. (Among the entire state electorate, he got 21%.) What's more, 39% of the independents voted for Perot. Many could re-register to vote for him in the 1996 Republican primary. California could be the showdown for Perot vs. the party Establishment.

The importance of the Democratic primary will depend on President Clinton's popularity. If it's still weak, he could be embarrassed by some liberal--although probably not Jerry Brown, who's getting stale. Notes William Schneider, a Washington-based political analyst: "If the constituency is there, a candidate will step in."


The earlier primary also will mean a slight economic boost for the state. Many millions raised from California contributors will be spent here instead of elsewhere. California no longer will be merely a cash cow.

But what if candidates stay away, opting to focus on smaller, less-costly states? "That's an admission of weakness and the media will stick it down their throat," says Susan Estrich, who managed Michael S. Dukakis' 1988 campaign and now is a USC law professor. "You're also giving up a huge chunk of delegates."

And, unrelated, the Senate's passage of the bill last week was a testament to tenacity. Little-known Assemblyman Jim Costa (D-Hanford) had been pushing an early primary for 14 years. No special interest "juice" was at stake. Nothing especially was in it for his voters. He just thought it made sense. But colleagues fretted about its impact on their own politics. Would it change the turnout? Would it help certain initiatives? The governor?

They finally just said, heck, let's try it once. And for California voters that will mean more influence and some fun.

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