AFTER years of debate, California is approaching a crucial decision over whether to move up its presidential primary - a move that could reroute the path to the White House. The state Senate is widely expected to approve legislation Feb. 22 that would shift the primary from June to early March in 1992.
While new problems have surfaced that might complicate the issue and keep the full Legislature from signing off on the measure, supporters remain cautiously optimistic that an early primary bill will eventually emerge.
If so, California would become the first big state to vote in the 1992 presidential campaign - something that could alter how candidates run for office and spur other states to rearrange their primary calendars.
``You will have a whole new context for the campaign,'' says Mervin Field, a California pollster.
A political `money colony'
Supporters of moving the primary argue that, despite having a sequoia-size block of delegates, California has become an ``afterthought'' in the nominating process. Not since 1972 has the state's pull-up-the-rear primary played a decisive role in selecting a presidential candidate.
The state, to these supporters, is a ``money colony'': a land of deep pockets that candidates can reach into at their leisure to underwrite their quests for immortality in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Critics, however, argue that an early primary would unfairly benefit the well-heeled, because of the high cost of campaigning here, thus discouraging ``little guys'' from running for president.
Dollar squeeze on state level
At the state level, some lawmakers worry about a new campaign stricture that would ban fund raising by politicians in nonelection years. If the primary were held in March, that would leave politicians who are running for state office little time to build war chests.
More recently, there has been concern in Republican circles that a March primary might force GOP lawmakers to run for reelection in their current legislative districts in 1992, rather than in newly drawn districts after the 1990 census that might be more favorable to them. They doubt the redistricting fight will be settled by then.
All this was supposed to be decided in the Senate showdown Feb. 22. Instead, lawmakers are expected to approve the early-primary bill and let a Senate-Assembly conference committee try to work out the differences.
Two primaries considered
One way to assuage GOP interests might be to hold two primaries: one for the presidential race in March and another for state offices in June, an approach Gov. George Deukmejian (R) now apparently prefers for his own reasons.
But some lawmakers in the past have worried about the cost of holding two primaries and the impact on voter turnout. Still, an aide to Assemblyman Jim Costa (D), the main sponsor of the legislation, says: ``It appears everybody wants an early primary. It is just a matter of getting all the parties to agree on how.''
While state lawmakers tussle over the parochial implications of an early primary, pundits debate its national impact. Their verdict: It would probably follow the law of unintended consequences, which in politics means that anything that is supposed to happen does not, while anything that should not happen most probably will.
One popular theory holds that an early California primary would make the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, which will still be held earlier, irrelevant. But this isn't necessarily so.
Pundits say most candidates will not be able to pass up the ``media bounce'' they might get from placing well in the smaller states. It will be particularly important for those who cannot raise huge sums to run in California.
Other primaries affected
``All the unknowns are going to concentrate even more on New Hampshire,'' says William Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.
Some observers argue that a March California vote would benefit ``insider'' Democratic candidates - those who are well known and well financed, such as New York Gov. Mario Cuomo or Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen. Maybe so. But California also has a penchant for the ``outsider'' (Gary Hart in 1984) and those with star-quality.
GOP national chairman Lee Atwater says he is ``delighted'' that California may go early because it would push the Democrats further to the left. But Pollster Field says the state's Democrats are not as reflexively liberal as they were in the days when they chose George McGovern (1972).
A dangerous proving ground?
Among some Democrats, there is optimism that a March California vote would help a winner emerge earlier in the campaign and give the party more time to unite behind a nominee. Yet, because of Democratic National Committee rule changes, there will be no winner-take-all primaries this time around, which means the California vote could be splintered - the decision inconclusive.
Republicans, too, might run into a few surprises. While President Bush is thus far expected to have little opposition in 1992, analyst Schneider says California would certainly be fertile ground for the pro-abortion wing of the Republican Party, should it decide to field a protest candidate in the hope of influencing the party's platform.
One thing does seem certain, though: An early primary in California would probably prompt other states to move up their votes.
If enough did, it could lead to a de facto national primary in March - something that would really alter presidential politicking (but don't ask how).