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California should've been a primary decider

The state holds 15% of the Republican delegates needed to secure the nomination, but we'll have to settle for spectator status.

April 09, 2012|George Skelton | Capitol Journal
  • Republican presidential front-runner Gov. Mitt Romney last week in Tunkhannock, Pa.
Republican presidential front-runner Gov. Mitt Romney last week in Tunkhannock,… (Steven Senne / Associated…)

With apologies to Yogi Berra and thanks to Rick Santorum, the fat lady has thrown up. It's over.

Mitt Romney is the only Republican presidential candidate still on his feet. And he won't need to lean on California to win the GOP nomination.

Californians really won't matter when they finally vote June 5.

There had been much speculation — even predictions — that California's primary would be "relevant" and perhaps "decisive." Or that we could play a crucial role by denying the frontrunner the clinching delegates, thus thrusting the nomination fight into a historic "brokered" convention in August.

Pure fantasy. Wishful thinking by a media that yearned for an exciting story to cover — and by Democratic pros who relished the Republican bloodletting.

Hey, the contest was entertaining, especially those 20 debates.

But it's history.

"It's not going to be meaningful here because the race will slow to an absolutely dead crawl by then," says veteran Democratic consultant Bill Carrick. "It's inevitable."

It was over in late February, I figured, when Santorum barked that readingJohn F. Kennedy's eloquent 1960 campaign speech promising a separation of church and state made him want to "throw up."

Santorum is a Catholic, but Kennedy is a Catholic icon — and was on the right side of that issue.

The fat lady probably didn't appreciate Santorum criticizing contraception, an issue most people thought was settled back in JFK's day when the pill was introduced to a grateful America. Santorum essentially complained that it licensed sex merely for pleasure, not reproduction.

Any conceivable chance of Santorum catching Romney was eliminated last Tuesday when the frontrunner won in Wisconsin, even if unimpressively.

"It's over," agrees Republican strategist Rob Stutzman. "If Santorum doesn't know it, he's starting to figure it out. It's the end of the end, not the beginning of the end."

Here's one way you could tell: all those leaks out of the Romney camp recently about his beginning the search for a running mate. Maybe he is, but I suspect this was mainly a message to Santorum backers that Romney knows he has the nomination locked. Don't waste your money and prestige on a loser.

That's what was missing in all the rose-tinted California speculation. Once a candidate gets ahead, then further ahead, he's like a speeding train. Politicians scamper aboard. So do donors and voters.

Romney has piled up well over half the 1,144 delegates needed to win the nomination. More important, he has more than twice as many as Santorum and about five times Newt Gingrich's number.

It's possible that California and the other three states voting June 5 will provide Romney the clinching delegates, but no matter. He'll get them with or without California.

This state could have been an important player if it had held an earlier contest, say, on Super Tuesday, March 6. Or even later in March.

"On Super Tuesday, too much stuff is going on," Carrick says. "But pick a date in the middle of the process and California could be huge. We could be the place that seals the deal, determines the outcome."

California tried early primaries in four presidential elections beginning in 1996. It was a mixed bag. Usually, the nominations were all but nailed down before we voted.

In 2008, California did rescue Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential candidacy by delivering a critical victory that helped keep her bid breathing for three months.

This year, the GOP race has dragged on longer than expected because:

•Republicans aren't at all excited about Romney.

•"Super PACS" funded by billionaires are bankrolling candidates and keeping them afloat long after they ordinarily would have drowned.

•Far fewer states are awarding their Republican delegates on a winner-take-all basis. Every candidate potentially can win something.

It would have been an ideal year for California to hold a timely primary before some candidate had stretched out an insurmountable lead.

But Gov. Jerry Brown and the Democratic-controlled Legislature decided to combine presidential balloting with the regular state primary in June. Since there was no fight for the Democratic nomination, the majority party could not have cared less about a presidential primary. Also, they didn't want the GOP to get energized. Keep it lethargic.

That's not what they said, of course. They claimed to be saving money, as much as $100 million. And most Republicans bought the argument.

Not all, however. "Sometimes you can be penny-wise and pound-foolish," former Senate Republican leader Bob Dutton of Rancho Cucamonga told me in January. "It's hard to put a price on democracy."

Actually, the real waste of money will be counting the presidential votes in June.

Moreover, if we had held a presidential-only primary — nothing else on the ballot — it surely would have cost much less than $100 million.

"We could have had one of the most competitive Republican primaries in recent history," contends GOP consultant Adam Mendelsohn.

"We have a vulnerable president, and there's a lot of energy on the Republican side nationally. If California couldn't be relevant in this primary season, there's no reason to believe it will ever be relevant.

"California will have no relevance in this presidential election — at all."

That's because President Obama virtually has this blue state locked up for November.

"What California thinks doesn't matter in a presidential election," former Michigan Gov. John Engler said recently on television.

It's ludicrous. California has 15% of the Republican delegates needed to win the GOP nomination, 172. It holds 20% of the electoral votes necessary to elect a president. And we're irrelevant.

We watch the other states party and wait for the fat lady.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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