SACRAMENTO — The California Senate voted Tuesday to move the state's presidential primary from June to February in hopes of increasing the state's political clout -- but the plan could backfire.
The Senate passed a measure that would enable Democrats and Republicans to choose presidential nominees Feb. 5 instead of June 3. The bill is expected to be heard in the Assembly next week and to pass easily. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has said he will sign it.
Lawmakers hope that an early California primary will force contenders to rethink a campaign strategy that traditionally focuses on face-to-face persuasion in New Hampshire and Iowa, which hold the country's first primaries or caucuses in January.
But at least four other big states are poised to hold early primaries as well, potentially eroding the greater role California hopes to play.
Legislation similar to California's is pending in Illinois, Texas, Florida and New Jersey. And politicians in New York and elsewhere are pondering early primaries.
Pennsylvania and Indiana have bills that would move their primaries to the first week of March.
At least eight states have tentatively scheduled primaries or caucuses for Feb. 5. States must notify the Democratic National Committee by May as to when they will hold their presidential primary or caucus and the Republican National Committee by September.
"Everybody's sort of watching everybody else right now," said Tim Storey, an elections expert with the National Conference of State Legislatures. "It's this giant game of chicken."
California lawmakers say they no longer want the state to be a cash machine for presidential candidates who raise money here but don't stick around to discuss issues of keen concern, such as immigration.
"California is the biggest, most influential state in the nation, yet its current June presidential primary virtually ensures that the major party nominees will be determined before our votes are cast," said state Sen. Ron Calderon (D-Montebello), author of SB 113, which passed 31 to 5.
But if a slew of other states with similar aspirations move up their primaries and no clear winner emerges next February, states with primaries in April, May and June could end up determining the nominations.
"Moving up could just put you in the fog with all those other states there in the beginning, and by holding off you become the linchpin," Storey said. "It's all kind of Rube Goldberg -- if this, then that. Who knows what's going to happen?"
Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) said none of that mattered.
"We'll get a brand new Super Tuesday," he said. "It will be California and others. I don't much care about the others. I care about California. We're the biggest dog in the kennel, and when we say something and start barking, people are going to pay attention."
A primary election schedule front-loaded with big states, where buying advertising is expensive, could give an advantage to well-known candidates with deep pockets, analysts say. And the extended campaign season could burn out voters.
"The cost of campaigning actually goes way up because of the much longer period of time people are trying to fight this through," said Larry Gerston, a political scientist at San Jose State.
California has been down this road before, without much luck.
In 1994, state legislators, using the same "we could play a big role" reasoning, moved the presidential primary to March 26. But many other states jumped ahead, leaving California 32nd in the 1996 campaign schedule -- only slightly better positioned than had the primary remained in June.
For 2000, California lawmakers moved the primary to the first Tuesday in March. It stayed there through 2004, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill returning it to June.
Lawmakers called the March primary a failure. By the time California voted in March 2004, 20 other states had already held elections, and Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry was the presumed Democratic nominee.
"An early primary didn't make us any more relevant," Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) said in August 2004. "The only result was a lower turnout."
Today, Nunez is a strong supporter of moving the primary, saying it will make California more relevant in national politics.
"Some national issues, including immigration and coastal oil drilling, are issues that disproportionally impact states like California," Nunez said Tuesday in a speech at the Sacramento Press Club. "I think prospective nominees should be vetted on their views on these issues sooner rather than later."
Nunez has another reason: He hopes to use an early primary ballot to ask voters to relax term limits.
If voters agreed, he would be able to run for his Assembly seat again. The early presidential primary bill would not affect primary elections for state offices, including those for the Legislature, held in June.
Without a change in the term limits law, Nunez would be forced from his seat -- and his Assembly leadership post -- in 2008.