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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

California Weighs In on a Small Scale

The state with the most delegates remains more of an afterthought than a prize for candidates.

March 01, 2004|Mark Z. Barabak and James Rainey | Times Staff Writers

Tracy Sherman was leaving a Pasadena theater last week after seeing "50 First Dates" when she paused to discuss Tuesday's Democratic presidential primary.

Sherman is backing Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, though she is hardly swept off her feet. "I don't know why, exactly," the 36-year-old social worker said. "I just think he's the best candidate. He just seems to be more for the average-income person."

Frances La Torre supports Kerry's main rival, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. The 56-year-old court clerk knows little about him, but watched his recent appearance on "The Tonight Show."

"Edwards seems to be the only candidate talking about issues," said La Torre, laying aside the mystery novel she was reading over coffee in the Bay Area suburb of Walnut Creek.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday March 12, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Campaign ads -- A March 1 article in Section A said no presidential campaign ads were aired in California before the state's March 2 primary. In fact, Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio) had broadcast television and radio advertisements, and Democrat Lyndon LaRouche had aired radio ads.

California is finally having its say in the nomination fight, after waiting six weeks and watching 19 other states and the District of Columbia weigh in. With 370 delegates at stake -- more than one-sixth of the total needed to win the Democratic nod -- California is truly "the Big Enchilada,'' as Richard Nixon used to call it.

But for many who plan to vote, Kerry and Edwards are little more than a blur, a sound bite here or video snippet there. The field of political battle on Tuesday -- 10 contests, in states stretching coast to coast -- proved simply too big for them to spend much time in California.

And even though the state set its earliest primary ever, others leapfrogged ahead, leaving California to play a familiar role: choosing among candidates left after others picked over the lot.

"California doesn't get much of a choice," said Peter Wachtel, a 49-year-old Santa Rosa salesman who supported Joe Lieberman until the senator from Connecticut quit the race in early February. "My entire life, every time the primaries get to California, it's already decided."

Kerry seems poised for a big victory here Tuesday, but not because of any huge reservoir of enthusiasm. Rather, he seems to have benefited from his victories elsewhere, 18 so far. To the casual observer -- which seems to be most Californians intending to vote in the Democratic race -- that has conferred upon him a sense of electability, that most prized of commodities this political season.

Edwards hopes for a better-than-expected showing here and in New York, as well as a victory or two elsewhere -- with Ohio, Minnesota and Georgia his best prospects. Anything less could result in strong pressure on him to quit the race so the party can coalesce around Kerry.

Also vying for votes in Tuesday's contests are Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio and the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York, who are expected to continue their low-budget, message-oriented candidacies through the Democratic National Convention in late July.

From Eureka to Yucaipa, there has not been a single presidential campaign ad aired anywhere in California, which for many people in this far-flung, notoriously inattentive state means there is no presidential campaign to speak of.

The four Democratic contenders debated for 90 minutes on Thursday. And Kerry delivered a detailed foreign policy speech the next day at UCLA. But apart from that event, the hopefuls have staged the California equivalent of mere drop-by appearances, directly courting perhaps a few thousand voters in a state in which nearly 9 million registered Democrats and independents are eligible to vote in the party's primary.

Some Californians have been paying close attention. One of them is Felix Colon, a 67-year-old handyman in South Los Angeles who was not only familiar with the two leading Democrats, but was also conversant on the hurdles each might face against President Bush in November.

Colon, wearing a grimy sweatshirt and work boots with a hole in one toe, said he was supporting the 50-year-old Edwards because of his relative youth and newness to the national political scene.

The 60-year-old Kerry, a 19-year veteran of Capitol Hill, "has been around so long, I think if he becomes president nothing will change," Colon said.

For the most part, however, a series of random interviews last week with more than 100 Californians across the state found that many prospective voters knew little about the candidates. Their perceptions added up to little more than a pile of fragmented phrases: a Vietnam veteran, a senator, a Southerner, a liberal from Massachusetts, a trial lawyer, a man "who looks as if his features could be on a dollar bill."

Setiam Allah, a 21-year-old student at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, vowed to spend the weekend studying up on the candidates. "But in the end," he confessed on his way to a volleyball game, "I'll probably just go with what my parents vote."

A Los Angeles Times poll completed a week ago showed Kerry leading Edwards in the state 56% to 24% among likely primary voters. Although the survey was taken before Thursday's debate, most analysts saw little chance that the forum would change many minds.

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