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California: candidates' cash cow

Moving the primaries was supposed to entice hopefuls to do more than stop by to pick up funds. It's not working.

June 14, 2007|Scott Martelle and Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writers

With the eastern wall of the Santa Ana Mountains as a backdrop, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney spent 12 minutes answering reporters' questions earlier this week before ducking into Corona's Eagle Glen Golf Club for a private fundraiser -- part of a three-day swing through Southern California in which the Republican presidential candidate spoke exclusively to paying guests.

Democratic hopeful Barack Obama popped up for a media-only event on Tuesday at a Brentwood gas station to talk about low-carbon fuel standards, the Illinois senator's sole public sighting during a two-day California fundraising trip.

On Wednesday, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona took some swipes at Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's use of earmarks in defense legislation before stepping into a fundraiser atop the Wells Fargo Tower in downtown Los Angeles.

Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson also cruised through California in recent days as part of the mostly private scramble for cash before the next campaign finance-report deadline on June 30.

This wasn't how the campaign was supposed to unfold in California, according to the chatter earlier this year when the state Legislature moved up the 2008 presidential primaries to Feb. 5, near the front of the electoral calendar. An early primary was supposed to mean that the candidates would take the state and its issues seriously and not just stop by to pick up cash to spend elsewhere.

Yet seven months before the first absentee ballots can be cast, California voters' interactions with the candidates have been few and far between. And although the candidates talk about the political importance of California, some, at least, acknowledge the state isn't a top priority.

"The key for me, of course, and for all of us, if you look at the history of presidential politics, is to do well in the very early primaries" before Feb. 5, Romney said Monday. "We each have to focus a lot of effort on those first [states], as well as run a national campaign in all 50 states."

Giuliani put a sardonic spin on the fundraising ritual Sunday as he spoke to some 1,100 Republicans at the Orange County Republican Party's biggest annual fundraiser, a Flag Day Salute in Irvine. It was his fourth recent trip to the county to raise money; the other three were to add to his own campaign coffers. Almost all the Californians he talked to were donors or reporters.

"I'm always treated very, very well when I come to Orange County," Giuliani said. "People are very nice to me. They play golf with me. They give me food."

Part of the problem in courting California lies in the size of the state, and of the field. With so many candidates -- 17 declared between the two major parties alone -- a bad showing in earlier Iowa, Nevada and New Hampshire contests could obliterate most campaigns before Feb. 5, when about 20 states will vote. And competing in California is expensive. Obama, the top Democratic fundraiser in the last quarter, said that although California is "a very big ... trend-setting state," he has no plans yet to spend money on TV ads, generally considered the most efficient way to reach voters here.

Romney has spent freely on ads in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, where early contests coincide with cheaper ad rates. And Democrats Richardson and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut have aired ads in New Hampshire. But no one expects a barrage on California airwaves anytime soon.

Republican or Democrat, the candidates share a two-pronged tactic here: Raise California cash and hope for free media coverage.

"Each time we come over here, we try to do political events as well," Obama said, recalling a February visit that included four private Beverly Hills fundraisers and a rare -- for California -- public rally in the Crenshaw district that drew thousands. "We're trying to do outreach and political organizing even as we are doing fundraising."

Proponents of moving California's primary to Feb. 5 insist that while the candidates might be out of sight much of the time, they have been active behind the scenes lining up endorsements and building networks crucial to winning elections in this wide and diverse state.

State Sen. Ron Calderon (D-Montebello), who sponsored the bill that moved up the primary, said it was too early to expect the rallies and town-hall meetings that are hallmarks of campaigns in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Calderon said private fundraisers, at least, are including wider swaths of California as candidates reach beyond such traditional locales as Hollywood and Newport Beach.

"They're doing fundraisers with small groups and community leaders, elected officials and business leaders," Calderon said.

Calderon said he had attended private gatherings where he talked healthcare with Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio) and listened to Richardson discuss local housing issues.

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