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California and the West | THE WASHINGTON CONNECTION

Primary Move Gains Little Ground

October 13, 1998|MARK Z. BARABAK

Birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim and every four years politicians gotta muck around with the way we elect a president.

The latest exercise in "can't leave well enough alone" is California's ballyhooed push toward the front of the 2000 primary parade. The perennial whine has been that the Golden State--the biggest, most important, most cutting-edge state in the whole history of humankind--has played a piker's role in choosing presidents.

And so California is plopping itself squarely in the path of any White House wannabe, moving its tail-end June primary clear up to March 7, right in the presumed thick of things. You want to run this country? Come to the Central Valley and talk about water. Tour the U.S.-Mexico border and say what you'll do about Tijuana sewage fouling San Diego's beaches. And while you're at it, how will you save San Francisco Bay and what about Los Angeles' dysfunctional public schools?

That's the way it works in theory.

But as immutable as a bird's urge to fly is the proverbial law of unintended consequences, which never fails to attend each quadrennial round of tinkering.

And sure enough, by leapfrogging, California has changed one thing. Far from diminishing the importance of Iowa and New Hampshire, as some sneering Californians have suggested, those Lilliputians have now become even more important in the presidential selection process.

Certainly a lot more important than California.


Some things in life are inviolate, like the Sabbath, the infield fly rule and the kickoff status of Iowa and New Hampshire. That duopoly is a function of an extortionist threat to any candidate who campaigns there: You mess with our preeminence, your campaign is toast.

Given that understanding, California crowded as close as it could to the head of the line, moving its primary (along with New York and several like-minded New England states) to the first Tuesday after New Hampshire.

The problem with all this California scheming is that to get here, a candidate will still have to pass through Iowa and New Hampshire. And given the blink and it's over pace of the increasingly compact nominating process, those lead states will play an even greater role in culling the field of umpteen hopefuls to the fortunate two or so (per party) who last just to the second week of the primary season.

"The truth of the matter is you can't do well in California without doing well in Iowa and New Hampshire," said Brian Kennedy, former head of the Iowa GOP. "The notion of sitting back and waiting for California is ridiculous," said

Republican strategist Bill Kristol, who added that any serious contender for either party's nomination will have to prove themselves in the customary fashion: by clearing the Iowa-New Hampshire hurdle.

Which sets California Gov. Pete Wilson back quite a few paces.


Less than 24 hours after the polls closed on election day November 1996, Lamar Alexander was on the telephone with supporters in Iowa and elsewhere, launching his 2000 campaign. Although a tad precocious, the former Tennessee governor and '96 also-ran is hardly alone in his early efforts.

Well over half a dozen fellow GOP contestants have already trooped through Iowa and New Hampshire on multiple occasions. Some, like Alexander, have taken up semi-permanent residence. Face time alone can't guarantee success, but it doesn't hurt. (Granite State humor: Q: Are you gonna support Candidate X? A: I dunno. He's only been over for dinner three times.)

For his part, Wilson was last seen crashing and burning somewhere between Hanover and Portsmouth, N.H., after writing off Iowa in his ill-starred 1995 presidential bid. Needless to say, there's some ground to recover. And advancing the California primary, although making insiders' hearts go pitty-pat, doesn't amount to a hill of baked beans to most folks.

Campaigning in snug states like Iowa and New Hampshire "is a very personal process," said Iowa's Kennedy, who now works for Alexander. "It's small towns, living rooms, working diners, that sort of thing."

Not exactly the best environment for California's un-warm, un-fuzzy governor, who already has enough worries about raising the $15 million to $20 million he'll need for a serious second try at the White House.

As for any perceived home-state advantage, even longtime loyalists say Wilson can't count on winning in California without first demonstrating his mettle in Iowa and New Hampshire. (A Times poll last month found that 63% of registered California voters oppose another Wilson run for president, including 57% of Republicans).

"A lot of guys who were there for him in '95 have their fingers in the air and feel a wind blowing in from the Southwest," said one Wilson supporter, referring to Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the GOP front-runner of the moment.

All roads may lead to California on March 7, as some fancy. But the trip starts in Iowa and New Hampshire and there won't be many travelers by the time the race crosses the Arizona border.


Experts say California will damage presidential selection system. A5

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