The California Primary

POLITICAL analysts are having a field day trying to figure out the significance of California's (tentative) decision to move its presidential primary from June to March. There are as many different proposed scenarios as there are scenarists. Though it's the nation's most populous state, since 1972 California has played a negligible role - except in fundraising - in choosing presidential candidates. Because its primary has been held at the end of the nominating season, the party standard bearers have generally sewn up the nominations before California voters could express their preferences.

So the California Assembly and Senate have passed bills moving the primary from early June to the first Tuesday in March. It would become the nation's first major primary, preceded only by the traditional Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary in February. (The two bills have to be reconciled, and the scheme could still founder over concerns about its effects on the primaries for congressional and state offices.)

The change will thrust California into the thick of the nomination fight - though to what end, no one can say for sure. It will, depending on whom you talk to, shrink the outsized importance of the Iowa and New Hampshire contests, or, conversely, will give those springboards even more bounce; bestow an unfair advantage to well-known, well-heeled, and telegenic candidates over Jimmy Carter-like dark horses, but then again, maybe not; will cause the Democrats to nominate more-liberal, and thus less electable, candidates, unless it results in more-moderate candidates.

Sounds like the debate that followed the creation of the South's Super Tuesday megaprimary.

In 1988 Super Tuesday didn't have the effect Democratic leaders wanted - an insurmountable lead for a moderate, possibly Southern, candidate. If there's one thing the Democrats should have learned since 1980, it's that fiddling with the nomination process doesn't win elections. On balance, the proposed change makes sense, but it shouldn't be viewed by Democrats as a substitute for devising a message that will win a majority of American voters from sea to shining sea.

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