Newt Gingrich speaks at a gathering of Republican Latinos at Cielito Lindo… (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)
When California pushed back its presidential primary to June to save money, the declarations came swiftly: The state's 5 million GOP voters would be bystanders to a race that was widely expected to be decided long before then.
It was a variation on a complaint made for decades — behemoth California left with no voice while pipsqueak states have all the fun.
But now, as the Republican contest to take on President Obama has slogged on far longer than most expected, there is at least an outside chance that California could have a decisive role when voters head to the polls June 5.
And the presidential field is starting to notice. Though politicians typically flock to California to raise money from the state's deep-pocketed donors, they are now coming to town for politicking as well, notably at this weekend's state GOP convention.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is slated to speak to the party's most committed activists Saturday at a luncheon. Mitt Romney is dispatching a top surrogate, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, to speak at a dinner Saturday alongside Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee.
"That is a recognition of California's prominence on the national stage," said Ron Nehring, the former state party chairman. He, like many party insiders, says it still remains likely that the race will be decided by June, but months of wild turns mean anything is possible.
"This cycle has defied all expectations," Nehring said. "There's a tendency among pundits to take what the current trend lines are and project them forward, and that is exactly what has not happened at every point in this process."
California's Democratic streak has led nominees to resolutely ignore the state during general elections. Primaries have long offered the most promising action, but the traditional June date kept the state on the sidelines. Even when it moved forward in recent cycles, the results were mixed. In 2008, the state was among 24 that voted for president Feb. 5, on Super Tuesday. Romney concluded a cross-country jaunt with a rally in Long Beach on the eve of the primary. Arizona Sen. John McCain ended up winning nearly all of the state's delegates, part of a Super Tuesday romp that forced Romney from the race.
But last year, in an effort to save millions of dollars, the Legislature voted to consolidate California's presidential primary with June's legislative races, meaning it would be among the last states to weigh in on the nominating process. Some accused Democrats of intentionally trying to disenfranchise California Republicans, but the move was supported by legislators on both sides of the aisle.
So this time around, California's fate will once again rest with other states. Michigan and Arizona voters will head to the polls Tuesday, Washington state will hold caucuses March 3 and on March 6 almost a dozen states will vote, including delegate-rich Georgia, Ohio and Tennessee.
Political experts say Romney's performance in Michigan — the state where he was born and his father was a popular three-term governor — will be critical.
"We'll have a much better sense after next Tuesday. If Romney is not able to hang on and win Michigan, that almost guarantees a contested primary all the way till California," said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.
The former GOP political operative noted that the party specifically changed its rules to extend the primary season, in part by requiring the earliest states to award delegates proportionally, rather than giving them in a bloc to the winner.
"Combine those new rules with a relatively weak front-runner [in Romney] and an unusually determined set of challengers, and you've got all the ingredients for a contested California primary," he said.
Polling shows that the contest is tight in California, with voters generally reflecting the national mood. A Field Poll released Wednesday showed Romney with 31%, Santorum surging to 25% and Gingrich falling to 12%. Ron Paul received the support of 16% of voters.
The way the state allocates its 172 delegates could lead to interesting strategies if California proves important. The winner of each of the state's 53 congressional districts will receive three delegates, with the remainder determined by the statewide vote. That means that careful, sophisticated targeting could result in substantial delegate pick-ups.
A heavily Democratic congressional district will award just as many delegates as a heavily Republican district, meaning that campaigns could try to save money by targeting the fewer voters in less-Republican districts with mailers and phone calls, said GOP strategist Rob Stutzman.
"There are as many delegates coming out of Maxine Waters' [Democratic] district as there are out of Dana Rohrabacher's" Republican district, he said.
Stutzman is not aligned with a candidate in the current race, but worked for Romney in 2008, when the campaign drew up a plan — never implemented — to target districts with fewer GOP voters.
Romney "could blow the dust off the plan that was done four years ago," he said. "It's a very affordable tactic."