Volunteers in Patrick J. Buchanan's presidential campaign on Sunday were soliciting members of Ross Perot's Reform Party to re-register as Republicans--the first sign of serious on-the-ground campaigning in the California primary and the first firm evidence of cooperation between Perot and Buchanan forces.
About half of the Reform Party members being contacted expressed a willingness to change their registration so that they could support Buchanan with their votes in the state's March 26 primary, said Penny Ferguson of San Mateo, Buchanan's volunteer coordinator for San Mateo County.
"They're very enthusiastic about Pat," said Ferguson, who added that Reform Party officials volunteered to share their voter registration lists with the Buchanan campaign.
There was no indication of how many new voters the Buchanan campaign might pick up by today's 5 p.m. registration deadline, but the move was considered a significant indication of a potential alliance between Perot and Buchanan, who have taken some similar positions and whose political bases of support overlap to a considerable degree.
Up to now, there has been virtually no visible campaign in California because the primary comes so late in the accelerated 1996 political season and running in so large a state entails immense cost and logistic problems.
For months, most campaign strategists had believed the GOP presidential contest would be settled by March 26. But the strength of Buchanan and others in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire and Delaware primaries has cast doubt on that assumption.
State Republican Chairman John Herrington said Sunday, "California is shaping up more and more as being important." But he added that it is too early to tell whether the primary will become pivotal in the selection of a Republican presidential nominee.
Within the past two weeks, the campaigns of Sen. Bob Dole, Buchanan and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander have opened offices with skeletal staffs in California. The Western regional coordinator for publisher Steve Forbes works out of Sacramento.
As in many other states, Dole has the advantage of support from prominent political allies in California and access to their own political networks--particularly those of Gov. Pete Wilson and state Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren.
"From an organizational point of view, the Dole organization has a huge head start," said Marty Wilson, a longtime Pete Wilson political strategist who has been appointed Dole's campaign manager in California.
But that has not necessarily translated into voter enthusiasm for Dole in other states or in California. Dole received 36% of the votes in a California mail-in straw poll conducted in January and February and announced at the Republican State Convention on the eve of the Iowa caucuses.
But Buchanan ran a strong second with 25% and Forbes was third with 18%. Judging by their vocal support when the poll was announced, the number of Buchanan boosters among the 1,500 convention delegates appeared to be about on a par with the Dole camp.
California political experts have said they doubt Buchanan can defeat Dole here should the contest narrow to those two by March 26, but they have indicated he would be a significant force in a battle among three or four candidates.
Winning is everything in California, where Republicans still give the No. 1 vote-getter all 163 delegate votes, the largest bloc in the nation, representing 16% of the number of delegate votes needed to win the nomination.
Buchanan has several potential conservative constituencies in California in addition to Reform Party members: gun-owner groups, antiabortion organizations, the Christian Coalition and those who have labored in initiative-petition campaigns against illegal immigration and affirmative action.
Many of those activists are members of the California Republican Assembly, a party-affiliated volunteer association of conservatives.
The CRA has fewer than 10,000 members in California, but it is considered far more important strategically than its numbers suggest because members are willing to spend considerable time and money working for the causes they support.
While their numbers are not massive, Perot's Reform Party officials have demonstrated an ability to organize. When Perot announced he was forming a new party last fall, California was the first target state for qualifying his group as a recognized political entity.
The Perot supporters managed to enlist nearly 100,000 new party members in a few weeks.
Herrington said the outcome of primaries and caucuses in 10 states March 12, known as Super Tuesday, and the primaries in Illinois, Michigan and Ohio on March 19 will help determine the importance of the California primary.
If there still is a race, it could boil down to an intense one-week campaign in California, where the candidate who can best afford to blanket the airwaves with television commercials might have an overwhelming advantage, Herrington and others said.