Super Tuesday's biggest prize

The Golden State's choice for president next week may best reflect the feelings of the nation as a whole.

When Sen. John McCain finished a campaign stop in this mid-size farm town earlier this week, his cheering supporters picked a homegrown way to say thanks: a crate of freshly picked asparagus.

It lent credence to how one man donning a rain-soaked cowboy hat characterized California's vast geographic midsection. "It's really pretty old-fashioned country," he said.

While that may not fit the Golden State stereotype, in political terms, it's right on the mark, not only for the Central Valley, but for the state as a whole.

California is, in a political sense, more mainstream than maverick. And it's so big that it will offer the nation its first broad-based glimpse of whom Americans want for president when it votes in next week's cavalcade of Super Tuesday primaries.

Put simply, "this state has become a political microcosm for the nation," says Mark Baldassare, author of "California in the New Millennium." And because the state has such a variety of constituencies, "winning here is more indicative of how a candidate will do nationally than anywhere else."

The March 7 primaries occur in so many states that they are being billed as something of a national plebiscite. But given the likelihood of split results from state to state, many analysts are drawing a bead on California as the place where voters' presidential preferences will be most indicative of the national sentiment.

"If you squeezed the nation into a composite, it would look like California," says John Culver, a political scientist at California Polytechnic State University, in San Luis Obispo.

Much of California's ability to mirror the nation politically derives from sheer size. The state's population of 34 million exceeds that of the other major states that have already held primaries - New Hampshire, South Carolina, Michigan, Virginia, and Washington - combined.

Similarly, the breadth of political constituencies in this state, which boasts five distinct and large geographic population centers, also makes it representative.

McCain's trip down the agricultural spine of the state this week threw a spotlight on an often overlooked constituency. The most productive agricultural region in the nation, California's Central Valley is a region of rising immigrants, bedrock conservatism, and expanding suburbanization.

Those features make it ripe for the kind of moderate-conservative swing voter vital to McCain's success, and reflective of the constituency both parties will need to secure victory in November.

Although Los Angeles and San Francisco are the windows through which the nation frames its image of California, their share of the state's population is actually declining. More and more people are living in the Central Valley and the regions south and east of L.A.

These population shifts are layered with another politically salient dynamic: the rapid growth of ethnic diversity. The dawn of a new century brings the end of white majority in California. And while the surge of Latinos and Asian-Americans is more pronounced here than in the nation as a whole, it is a phenomenon being felt nationwide, and one drawing the attention of the political parties.

Just as McCain was wooing the moderate swing voters of the Central Valley in the days before March 7, Bush was using his fluency in Spanish to appeal to the Latino community, something most experts say is essential if the GOP is to stay competitive nationally.

In pure electoral terms, California has been remarkably mainstream throughout the 20th century. Of the 25 presidential elections in the 1900s, the vote in California was consistent with that of the nation in all but three elections.

And while California politicians like Jerry Brown and Ronald Reagan have made the state appear personality-driven, the recent reality has been a decidedly mainstream crop of governors.

"To carry this state, you have to run a campaign that is moderate and broad-based, just as you do nationally," says Phil Trounstine, communications director for Gov. Gray Davis.

That's not to say California doesn't have its quirks. One of them - the way this year's presidential primary works - makes it both more akin to a mini-general election, and potentially more disruptive.

In 1996, California adopted an "open" primary, meaning all candidates will be listed on a single ballot and voters can pick whomever they choose, regardless of their official party registration.

Recent polls show Bush with a commanding lead over McCain among Republicans, but only a narrow advantage in the overall vote. Democrat Al Gore leads both McCain and Bush in the popular vote, with Bill Bradley coming in a distant fourth, according to those polls.

One possible anomaly that already has political circles buzzing is the possibility McCain will beat Bush in the overall vote, yet lose all the state's GOP delegates since only Republican votes count toward delegates. Such a scenario could give McCain bragging rights that he's the most electable in November.

Of course, with so many candidates on a single ballot the outcome won't translate directly into what might occur in a general election when voters have only one candidate from each major party to choose from.

But then again, some purists see an open ballot with every candidate competing as perhaps even more revealing of whom Americans want as president.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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