California Dreamin'

WE had just gotten used to the idea of Bob Kerrey sitting cross-legged on a bale of hay in Iowa and Jerry Brown doing his pump-handle handshakes outside another faded union hall in New Hampshire. But Phil Gramm in Bermuda shorts and Bob Dole stumping amid the human carnival at Venice Beach?

California's plan to advance its presidential primary will fundamentally alter the nominating process, not to mention our political imagery. It will be good for Golden State voters. For the rest of the country, we're not so sure. Not since 1972 has the populous state, harboring 20 percent of the delegates needed to nominate a president, been a factor in a presidential primary. It has served mainly as an ATM for candidates seeking money.

Gov. Pete Wilson (R) is expected to sign legislation soon moving the state's primary from June to late March. That would put it after New Hampshire and ``Super Tuesday'' in the South but before states like Texas, New York, and Pennsylvania. It would provide an early test for candidates in a state that, even given its peculiarities, is more representative of the nation than current early primary venues. It would also produce more discussion on different issues, such as immigration and the environment.

Yet there are dangers. If California moves its primary forward, will other states follow? That could lead to a de facto national primary. Running for president would start even sooner. Candidates could sew up nominations before the public tunes in. Early balloting in such a media-oriented state would aid telegenic candidates and those with deep pockets. Dark horses would have a tough time standing out.

For these reasons, we think California is right to try the early primary as an experiment in 1996 only. Then everyone can gauge the impact. Now, if we can get just along without the Manchester Union Leader.

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