California voters: a foregone ending

Kerry seems set to triumph in Tuesday's primary, but the fall matchup could be closer.

At this town's icon of California-grown Americana - the Galleria Mall - the masses are chowing down on three-bean salads and low-carb subs but not exactly sinking their teeth into the fat of politics.

"I don't know much about [Democratic front-runner] John Kerry," says Robert Hall, an engineering consultant jawing a cheeseburger outside Fuddrucker's. "But if he can beat Bush, he's the man for me."

"Kerry just strikes me as more of a leader than Bush," says pharmacist Vina Sayre, at an adjoining table, spooning Ben & Jerry's ice cream to her two toddlers.

"Remind me ... our primary is when?" says her companion Rene Gallagher, insurance broker and mother of two.

The three comments echo what political observers are finding just days before California's March 2 presidential primary: With Senator Kerry of Massachusetts holding a big lead over Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina (60 percent to 19 percent) - and with George W. Bush experiencing his lowest ranking in California since the 2000 election - the state's foregone- conclusion election has cast a pall of sleepy inevitability over the vote. And despite the recent gubernatorial win by the Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, the state's steady list toward the left in recent years is not likely to change before the November election.

"This is the quietest primary in California in as long as I can remember," says Joe Cerrell, a veteran Democratic strategist.

For the most part, candidates are focusing on crucial battleground states and so far are paying limited attention to the biggest prize of all - the 370 delegates of California come November. Those delegates are considered safe in the "win" column for Democrats. "Considering how many voters we have, how many delegates, electoral votes, and the long-term strategic importance of California nationally," says Mr. Cerrell, "it's a real anomaly."

Cerrell and other political strategists say the overwhelming edge by Kerry at the moment is based less on platform agenda than by the momentum he has generated and the Democrats' desire to keep a unified front to win the White House.

That's the thinking of dark-haired Dawn Paxson, slipping coins into a meter along Piedmont Avenue on a blustery afternoon in Oakland. She's not sold on Kerry when it comes to issues she values - civil rights, abortion, education, healthcare - but she says, "We need to not have George Bush in the White House."

The sentiment is not lost on others in the state. "Democrats here are mostly unified behind ousting Bush and seem convinced that Kerry's wins in other state primaries prove he is the Democrat best positioned to do so," says Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican strategist.

Because Kerry is spending his advertising in other states more on the fence for Super Tuesday - Ohio, New York, and Georgia - most nonactivist voters here only know what they've read and heard from other states, Mr. Hoffenblum says.

"Mainly, voters here know Kerry looks good on TV and is winning, and so they want him," he says. "But because TV and newspaper coverage fails to report much beyond the horse-race details of who's winning, they really don't know what they are buying into."

One case in point is California voters who have told pollsters they are worried about trade issues and are not supportive of NAFTA. Such voters would in theory prefer Senator Edwards, but according to polls released this week, they still prefer Kerry. "Kerry's electability is far more important to voters here than his positions, which don't really track ... with exactly what they want," says Elizabeth Garrett, a political scientist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

That is not likely to change before Tuesday - or before November. Although both Kerry and Edwards made California appearances ahead of Thursday night's Democratic debate, neither has reportedly scheduled any stops in the state after Friday, and they have no plans to spend advertising money desperately needed in more crucial states. "Some people get angry about candidates not showing up here, but they don't understand the rules of the game," says Ms. Garrett.

Those decisions about California are partly based on poll numbers showing possible matchups against Mr. Bush. When he is paired against Kerry in a simulated general election, Kerry is preferred 53 percent to 41 percent, according to a California poll released Wednesday. Currently, 51 percent of the state's registered voters disapprove of Bush's job performance, the lowest since his election. That includes some Republicans, even though 78 percent still back Bush.

"I give [Kerry] credit for having a lot of experience and good judgment," says silver-maned Henno Simonlatser, a registered Republican who could pass for a college professor. Bush doesn't have his vote locked up, he says, keeping his eye on how the United States fares in Iraq.

"I vote for the man with the issues I support," he says in a calm, gravelly voice, scanning the headlines at an Oakland newspaper rack. "The Iraq situation is No. 1."

Analysts note that Kerry's longevity in the US Senate, as well as his experience on its Foreign Affairs committee, are unknown to many here.

"I have run into several people in academic settings who should know better [but] who have no idea how much experience Kerry has in foreign affairs," says Garrett. "If that kind of information has not filtered down to them, it doesn't bode too well for the average voter."

Mark Sappenfield contributed to this report from Oakland, Calif.

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