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The Primary Problem

And an entertaining solution.

11:00 PM, Feb 22, 2007 • By BILL WHALEN
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LIKE CHARLIE BROWN trying to kick a pigskin but always ending up supine, there's a foolish consistency to California's dream of a grander role in the presidential selection process.

Take, for example, the 1996 race. The Golden State figured it could play kingmaker by moving up its primary from the first Tuesday in June to March 26 of that year. Unfortunately, a few other states had the same idea--California ended up 32nd on that year's campaign schedule.

Four years later, Sacramento's best and brightest advanced the primary an additional three weeks to the first Tuesday in March. All that did was leave California 21st in line, again producing little drama. And so it was too in March 2004--Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry had the nomination sewn up by the time California Democrats went to the polls.

So what's a nation-state to do? You guessed it. Last week, California's State Legislature voted to advance the presidential primary to Feb. 5 of next year. With Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's presumed signature, the move would position California--along with at least eight other states--just a week after South Carolina's Jan. 29 primary (which is preceded only by Iowa, Nevada, and New Hampshire).

Here are two things you need to know about California's latest attempt to raise its self-esteem.

First, it's a scheme that serves a variety of self-serving agendas. Democrats see the early presidential primary as a vehicle for relaxing state Legislature term limits (a ballot initiative would change the law so that lawmakers can serve 12 years instead of the current 14; however, they could spend the entire time in one chamber). With California holding a primary for state officials in June, passing the initiative in February means the top two Democrats in Sacramento--Senate President pro Tem Don Perata and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez--can avoid the term-limit noose this fall.

For Republicans, the carrot is the promise of a second ballot initiative that would hand over redistricting to an independent panel, perhaps weakening the Democrats' lock on both the Legislature and California's Congressional delegation. Not surprisingly, Democratic legislators, after months of saying that redistricting reform would be part of the deal, suddenly are balking at the idea. Schwarzenegger has said there will be no deal if redistricting isn't included.

And that wouldn't please the Governator, as a February primary may be his best chance to cast a shadow over the Republican field. Arnold can't run for president, but with an early primary would force GOP hopefuls to visit the Golden State early and often, kissing his oversized lapis ring, and agreeing with Schwarzenegger on stem cells, global-warming, and his decidedly non-conservative approach to governing.

And that leads us to the second ugly truth about this rescheduled primary: it's going to backfire, as it always does.

California may be the richest prize on Feb. 5, but it's doubtful that it's the best use of a candidate's time. That's because there are likely to be some attractive "consolation" prizes on the same date. At last report, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Montana, Texas, and New Jersey all are considering crashing California's party. If they agree to the date, in addition to the eight states currently slated for Feb. 5, as many as 16 states could be up for grabs on that one day, dwarfing the dozen states that voted on March 7, 2000 (especially since 2008's "Super Tuesday" would include five of the nation's ten largest states). The bottom line: a candidate could lose California but easily save face--even gain ground--by winning elsewhere.

Also, California's GOP primary isn't winner-take-all in terms of delegates. Instead, delegates are chosen according to the results in individual congressional districts. A Republican candidate could spend $5 million in TV ads, win the overall vote in California, but fail to win a majority of the delegates. Factor in time wasted flying to and from the coast, and it sounds like an unrewarding experience.

UNFORTUNATELY, California isn't the only loser in this game. So too is the presidential primary schedule, which is becoming frontloaded to the point of collapse.

That wasn't the case two elections ago. By Feb. 8, 2000, only three states--Iowa, New Hampshire and Delaware--had held GOP presidential contests. Four years later, 11 states held Democratic primaries or caucuses by Feb. 7. For 2008, with nearly two-fifth of the nation's states voting on or before Feb. 5, there's a good chance that both parties could decide their nominees a mere 22 days after the Iowa caucuses, leaving nine months for the general election.