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California's Decision to Move Up Primary Date Stirs Debate

Experts say state will accomplish little in a 'front-loaded' delegate-selection system for president. Candidates will lack time and money to get their message out, they insist.


WASHINGTON — When California politicians advanced the date of the 2000 presidential primary, their aim was to end years of frustration over the largest state's puny role in the nominating process. But if recent experience and present political realities are any guide, the chances of achieving that goal seem dim.

According to many national experts, all Californians are likely to accomplish with their new March 7 primary date is to further degrade the much-derided presidential selection system.

The increasingly "front-loaded" delegate-selection system, which California's leap forward accelerates, dramatically reduces the chances of all but the best-known, best-heeled candidates. Others will lack the time or money to get their message across. And this, in turn, diminishes the prospects of real competition or surprises occurring in most primaries--even those moving up on the election calendar.

With California's move, the experts say, the likely outlook for the 2000 campaign is that the nominations will be preordained before ballots are cast in the Golden State or elsewhere--with the possible exceptions of Iowa and New Hampshire, where delegate selection for both parties traditionally begins. After a cursory winnowing of the field in those two small states, "all that the people of California will get to do will be to ratify the Gallup Poll and the fund-raising totals," says GOP strategist David Keene, an advisor to the Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Bob Dole campaigns.

And those Californians hoping the new primary date will boost the presidential prospects of Republican Gov. Pete Wilson also could face disappointment, many political professionals say.

"Wilson could be a contender," says GOP consultant Charles Black, a strategist for the presidential campaigns of Reagan, Bush, and, most recently, Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas). "But he's got to play by the same rules as everybody else, which means he has to do well in Iowa and New Hampshire."

Of course, at this early stage, no one can predict the consequences of California's shift. A few analysts guess the change could still help a dark horse who, by finishing dramatically ahead of expectations in Iowa or New Hampshire, could gain enough momentum to cash in on the cornucopia of delegates up for grabs in California and New York.

But even under that scenario, California's impact may be less than many imagine.

"Instead of enhancing the power of the people of California to determine the outcome of the nominating process, the early primary in California could well enhance the power of the people in Iowa and New Hampshire," speculates Democrat strategist Tad Devine, a former advisor to the presidential campaigns of Walter F. Mondale and Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.).

"The California move is the final nail in the coffin" of the primary nominating process, claims Fred Wertheimer, former head of Common Cause and founder of Democracy 21, a new political reform group. "It drastically narrows the time frame for considering the competing candidates, for examining their views and giving them a chance to make their arguments for public support."

No one finds it hard to understand why California is moving up its primary date. Despite its size, the state that now sends about 10% of the delegate total to each national convention has not had a meaningful role in the nominating process since 1972, when George S. McGovern nailed down the Democratic nod by defeating Hubert H. Humphrey in the Golden State contest then held in June.

"We've been fundamentally irrelevant," says Los Angeles-based Democratic consultant Bill Carrick, who managed the 1988 presidential bid of Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.). "California has as much right to be a decisive part of this process as anybody else."

And on the surface, at least, Californians will probably see more of the initial political action in 2000 than they have in the past. "People will campaign there and spend a lot of money there," Black says.

But the experts anticipate that the choices available to the state's voters will be diminished by the intensification of front-loading, with its corresponding financial pressures.

Many believe that in the 1996 campaign, these factors led a number of potentially appealing Republican prospects--such as former Cabinet secretaries Dick Cheney, Jack Kemp and William J. Bennett--not to compete for the GOP presidential nomination. And even some supporters of the ultimate winner, Dole, now concede that their candidate's huge financial advantage over his GOP rivals blotted out misgivings within party circles about his general election prospects.

In 2000, the effect of California's move to March 7 will be compounded because of the other states that also have slated their primaries for that date: New York (the nation's third most populous state), Massachusetts, Maine, Connecticut and Maryland.

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