With less than a month before they weigh in as the 800-pound gorilla in the presidential primary, Californians are undergoing something of a political identity crisis.
Party loyalty out West has never run as deep as it does in other parts of the country. But this time around it seems exceptionally thin, thanks to this state's odd primary voting system and the dynamics of the unfolding presidential campaign.
County registrar offices around the state were swamped this week with an exceptionally high number of voters seeking to change their party affiliation. In the mix appears to be a significant number of independents who also rushed to join forces with a particular party, and voters registering for the first time.
Alfie Charles of the California secretary of state's office estimates that at least 50,000 people registered or re-registered this week in order to beat the deadline for the March 7 primary.
That, he says, is a significantly higher number than normal.
The reason for all this activity is that California is excited. Finally, after 30 years of simply ratifying the nation's choice for presidential candidates, the state should have a major say in the outcome.
It also has to do with the "blanket" primary system the state adopted two years ago, making it the only large state that permits voters to vote for whomever they prefer, and to cross party lines in their voting.
In other words, Californians can vote Republican for a presidential candidate and switch back to Democratic for US Senate.
The blanket system, in effect, allows voters to ignore party affiliation.
That's still permissible for the March 7 primary. But to preserve what some consider the integrity of the delegate-selection process, only votes from registered party members will count toward each party's selection of delegates.
So, many independents and even some party loyalists were rushing to change party affiliation this week in order to be sure their vote counts in selection of the Republican or Democratic party nominees.
Ronn Owens, who says he is apt to vote Democratic in November, became a registered Republican this week. His conversion was notable because he announced it as a sort of confession while hosting his top-rated San Francisco morning radio talk show.
His aim in becoming a Republican was to be able to help John McCain knock off GOP front-runner George W. Bush, he explained.
Mr. Owens's switch typified Senator McCain's appeal to non-Republicans, and the senator's impressive win in New Hampshire hit just in time to gain what appears to be a significant number of converts in California.
At least one other state, Massachusetts, also has seen an unusual amount of party-hopping, as thousands of people each day switch affiliation or register for the first time.
In the Bay State, the phenomenon reportedly began Feb. 3, the day after the Arizona senator trounced Governor Bush in the New Hampshire primary.
No one knows for sure what the intentions are of all those who re-registered this week.
Musical chairs favor McCain
But given that former Sen. Bill Bradley's standing among California Democrats has declined, according to polls, and that McCain's campaign made a concerted effort to bring conservative Democrats and independents into the Republican ranks, some analysts conclude that much of the party shuffling favors McCain.
The McCain camp set a target of registering or re-registering as Republican 30,000 voters statewide, and a campaign spokesman says "it looks like we exceeded that goal."
Of course, there were anecdotal stories across the state of voters with various loyalties either switching parties or going from independent to one of the parties.
For those voters, and there appears to be a significant number of them, who are not up to speed on the complexities of the delegate-selection process, their election choices will still count.
The state will tally the total popular vote.
It's just that it may or not necessarily coincide with the strictly party-line votes used in selecting delegates.
California had to be different.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society