To California's delight, wooing begins early

State's earlier primary succeeds in forcing presidential candidates to

When it comes to selecting presidential candidates, California has been big, but not very important. Its huge number of delegates were awarded so late in the game, they tended to ratify rather than influence the outcome.

Yet eight months before Iowans start the nomination process, the Golden State is thick with candidates: Bill Bradley is in the middle of a 10-day visit that should conclude as Democratic opponent Al Gore comes calling later this week, both of which precede the end-of-month trip by Republican George W. Bush.

All of which shows that the nation's presidential nomination process is beginning to bend to the weight of California.

Specifically, a much earlier primary, an "open" voting system, and the costly media-heavy campaigning needed to do well here are all combining to influence the nature of the 2000 election, say a range of political analysts.

Some of the changes are obvious. For instance, California's March 7 primary, weeks earlier than it used to be, forces candidates to get here sooner.

Other changes are consistent with the evolution of presidential politics. Campaign spending, already rising, gets a further boot upward given the demands in California. And the earlier, more compressed nomination process means candidates must move faster to a broader, wholesale message that will resonate in this diverse state, as well as in New England, Southern, and Midwestern states also voting March 7.

But one of the most intriguing changes may be how to calibrate a campaign for California, whose voters for the first time in a presidential primary will be allowed to vote for whomever they choose, regardless of party affiliation.

Candidates will continue to receive delegates based only on voters registered with their party. But the so-called "beauty contest" aspect of the California primary, given the size and diversity of the state, could well make this primary more of a mini-general election than a nomination choice. In other words, the outcome of the overall tally, not just who won each party's nomination, could be an unusually revealing indicator of what may come in November.

"The beauty contest portion of the California primary will simulate a national election more than any other state has in the past because, to win, a candidate will have to demonstrate true national reach to win everything from ... Central Valley to Silicon Valley," says Phil Trounstine, communications director for Gov. Gray Davis (D).

Tony Quinn, Republican analyst and political demographer in Sacramento, agrees: "This state is so huge that what'll be important is the open vote tally, rather than just the party delegate count."

It remains to be seen how much candidates will alter their campaigns for California. But Leslie Goodman, editor of the California-based "politicalaccess" Web site and a Bush backer, says competing in California's primary means "you are in essence running a general-election campaign, and the old paradigm of running to the edges during the primaries and back to the center during the general just won't work here."

One thing that could mitigate the perception of California as a mini-general election is if the early front-runners, Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush, don't meet expectations in Iowa and New Hampshire. Then their performance in their respective primaries will become the focus in California. But if they solidify their early positions, this state could become a test of their national strength, head to head.

A GREATER demand for dollars and time is the clearest result of California's new role. Mr. Bradley is even challenging the notion that "retail" politics won't work in this megastate. His current swing represents a level of concentrated time and attention not often found here.

Democratic media consultant Bill Carrick says the declining interest of local television in covering politics has ratcheted up the amount of paid advertising candidates must have, and he sees no substitute for major media buys to compete in this state.

Political analyst William Schneider of the American Enterprise Institute says California's greatest influence on campaign 2000 is simple: money. "You need to spend more time in California raising it and then spend more of it in California."

That's already happening. The current level of political activity, including recent or planned visits by virtually every major candidate, is far greater than what happened at a comparable time of the campaign in recent presidential elections, say analysts.

While California's early role in the selection process is clearly having an impact, GOP consultant Dan Schnur says it usually takes political strategists at least one election cycle before they fully understand a changed landscape.

While California clearly cares more about certain issues, like immigration and foreign trade, than other states do, candidates are expected to tailor their messages only around the edges. Moreover, they will need to build national themes that resonate here early in their campaigns and be ready with the dollars and time to drive them home quickly following New Hampshire.

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