By Steve Geissinger and Lisa Friedman - Staff Writers,
For the first time since the Vietnam War era, California will play a pivotal role in choosing a presidential nominee one year from today - March 2, 2004. The most populous state in the nation - a bastion of Democrats in a country leaning Republican - has not had the chance to play such an important part in picking a presidential nominee since George McGovern beat Hubert Humphrey in 1972. McGovern went on to claim the nomination but lost in a landslide to Richard Nixon.
This time, with a crowded field of Democratic candidates and an early March primary, California voters might actually be the ones to decide who will oppose President Bush's re-election bid. The state's 439 delegates - the largest bloc in the nation and over 10 percent of the total of 4,320 delegates - will be apportioned among candidates who garner at least 15 per cent of the vote in any congressional district. And even if states' competitive scramble to hold ever earlier primaries winds up again deciding the nominee before California's primary, the Golden State is already being pushed to center stage as a dozen or so Democratic candidates begin trying to mine the state's political treasures. ``California has not been instrumental in the nominating process in so long,'' said Tom Ochs of the New Democrat Network. ``It's going to be quite remarkable, and wild and expensive and cool and crazy.'' In this Democratic hub of celebrities, business moguls, union leaders and political advisers, California figures can use their connections and wealth to focus nationwide attention on a candidate and help sway the outcome of primaries preceding that of the Golden State. ``It'll be tough to turn around and not bump into a presidential candidate in California,'' said Joe Cerrell, a longtime Democratic consultant in Los Angeles. ``If anybody steps foot west of the Mississippi River, I think they'll make a quick trip into California.'' In the wake of the decision two months ago by 2000 Democratic nominee Al Gore to skip the 2004 race, actor-director Rob Reiner was besieged with phone calls from a bevy of interested Democrats. After all, Reiner, an effective fund-raiser, had helped amass millions for Gore three years ago - in fact, $4.5 million at a single event. The calls to Reiner came from former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri. Reiner and ``West Wing'' star Martin Sheen endorsed Dean - largely due to the former Vermont governor's opposition to a U.S.-led on Iraq. ``Dean's the only major Democratic candidate speaking out against going to war without the support of the United Nations,'' Reiner said, explaining his early endorsement. ``My urgency to support him right now is to give him as big a forum as possible so that his view can be heard.'' Others potentially joining the scramble for California's rich delegate prize include the Rev. Al Sharpton, former Illinois Sen. Carol Mosely-Braun, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, Florida Sen. Bob Graham, former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart, Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, and retired general and former NATO commander Wesley Clark. Many among the troupe of would-be contenders already have visited Los Angeles and the Bay Area. In the past few weeks, power brokers have huddled with Dean in a meeting hosted by actor Warren Beatty; with Edwards, at the home of Larry David, star and creator of HBO's ``Curb Your Enthusiasm;'' and with Gephardt, at the mansion of ex-studio owner Marvin Davis. Other Californians who are among some of the nation's most coveted fund-raisers include entertainment mogul and Power Rangers creator Haim Saban, San Diego Chargers owner and Stockton developer Alex Spanos, supermarket magnate Ron Burkle and Univision chief Jerry Perenchio. ``California is the big jackpot in Democratic politics,'' said Jenny Backus, a national Democratic spokeswoman. Not particularly welcome in Hollywood - the nation's fourth-biggest source of campaign cash, nearly surpassing the banking, energy and tobacco industries combined - is Lieberman. Gore's running mate in 2000 has antagonized many with his crusade against media sex and violence. Much of the pack is expected to turn out for the state Democratic Party convention March 14-16 in Sacramento. Confirmed speakers at the convention, turned spring primary preview, include Dean, Edwards and Lieberman. ``I don't think we've had such a spirited Democratic primary for a number of years,'' said state party chairman Art Torres. ``I think what we are going to see here in this state is a real articulation of the issues.'' Not only does California offer money and connections, but the state also is home to political strategists who have honed their skills running complex campaigns in this diverse nation-state. Perhaps among the most sought after currently is Garry South, who successfully masterminded the expensive campaign to re-elect Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, despite widespread dissatisfaction with Davis' handling of the energy and budget crises. But South's role and his choice of candidate remain up in the air. ``I really don't know if my national role would be confined to California,'' South said, adding that he has ``talked to a couple of the candidates and will probably talk to a couple more'' in coming weeks. California also offers myriad connections to politically powerful players, such as unions - especially those representing teachers and public safety workers. Other sought-after special interests, which can turn out troops for phone banks or other campaign activities, include environmentalists, gays and medical marijuana advocates.
The early campaign launches have not only been spurred by the need to compete for endorsements, staff recruitment and private fund raising. Under federal law, since the start of the new year, any money candidates raise may be matched with public funds, up to $250 per contribution, after they have met certain criteria. That's why so many candidates announced the formation of exploratory committees, which amounts to little more than filing paperwork with the Federal Election Commission. Moreover, new campaign finance laws limit so-called soft money, the unlimited contributions that political parties collected in five- or six-figure chunks. Individual donors can now give no more than $4,000 to a candidate each election season, putting a premium on political backers who can tap large networks of donors. The early campaign launches will be followed by more flashy declarations of candidacy by the hopefuls - who need tens of millions of dollars to compete - later this year. The Democratic candidates, especially the relatively low-profile figures, remember the story of how - with the party's heavyweights stepping aside in 1992 - Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton jumped into the void and defeated the senior Bush, then the incumbent president. Clinton was able to establish a beachhead in California that suggested to people nationally that he was going to be a serious candidate, said Bill Carrick, a Los Angeles political consultant advising Gephardt. ``You can send a message that you'll be competitive in the general election if you're competitive in California,'' Carrick said. And being competitive in California could take on an unexpected meaning for candidates this time around. The likelihood of a relatively large Democratic voter turnout for the primary will create an attractive atmosphere for passing ballot measures that liberals tend to like. With a huge state budget deficit looming, a host of interests are eyeing potential ballot measures centering on taxes and spending. As Democratic hopefuls worry about competing for attention, a central question is whether locking up California would indeed mean securing the nomination. The party plan calls for 4,320 pledged delegates. In order to lock in a nomination for the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, a candidate will need to win 50 percent plus one, or 2,161 delegates, according to the Democratic National Committee. Getting there involves a complicated formula by which candidates win delegates based on the percentage of votes he or she received in a given state, the DNC said. So, for example, a candidate who won 40 percent of the vote in Iowa would win 18 of that state's 45 delegates while a candidate who won only 30 percent of Missouri's primary would earn 22 of the state's 74 electoral votes. A candidate must receive at least 15 percent of the vote to receive any delegates at all. No state has a ``winner take all'' system. But by the time candidates arrive in California for its March 2 primary, at least 323 delegates will be spoken for. Besides Iowa and Missouri, candidates will vie for the following pledged delegates during the months of January and February - 22 from New Hampshire, 45 from South Carolina, 55 from Arizona and 82 from Virginia. By contrast, California has 370 delegates who will be pledged to canidates based on the March 2 outcome. Another 69 elected officials and party leaders will go as ``super delegates,'' and their votes are not tied to the state primary result. Whether California actually decides among the crowded field of Democratic hopefuls or not, the drama won't likely last beyond the state's March 2 primary next year. ``We'll be the last inning,'' predicted California Democratic Party spokesman Bob Mulholland. ``It's over March 2.'\ Contact Sacramento Bureau Chief Steve Geissinger at firstname.lastname@example.org and Washington Bureau Chief Lisa Friedman at email@example.com . Wires services contributed to this report. '