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Garcia: California deserves clout in primary

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When it comes to throwing its money around in presidential elections, California has few equals. As evidenced by the recent wave of visits from 2008 White House aspirants, candidates know that when it comes to big-time fundraising, California really is the Golden State.

But when it comes to throwing its weight around in the nominating process, California has been the ultimate back-bencher, watching in self-imposed silence as a host of relatively tiny states determines the selection of Republican and Democratic presidential nominees.

So it has become a hot national topic that the state appears poised to push up its presidential primary from June to Feb. 5 next year — a move that conceivably would give the nation’s most populous state the kind of political clout its leaders have long believed it deserved. And the only question on the minds of political analysts is whether the change will actually make that happen.

At this point only one thing is certain — people are taking notice. Legislatures in Florida, New Jersey and Illinois are already maneuvering to move their primaries up next year so that they don’t get lost in the nominating rush. And the so-called experts are all over the map as to what it will actually do to the national nominating process.

One school of thought suggests that the march to move up the primaries in big states could increase the power of the ones that have generally served as the launching pads for past nominees. By advancing the primaries into a Super Tuesday showcase, the argument goes that this would just pump up the importance of the New Hampshire primary, the Iowa caucuses and the contests in South Carolina and Nevada, where the winners might have enough momentum to cash in when the big states come into play.

I don’t buy this line of reasoning, which is advanced by traditionalists who see something purely American about a small agricultural state or a sparsely populated Northeastern state holding undue sway in the presidential selection process based on their brand of retail politicking.

And while I can appreciate the interest and idea of presidential candidates discussing domestic policies in cafeterias and living rooms, the numbers simply don’t equate to the reality of urban America. Why shouldn’t California and Florida be a much bigger part of the election process — their riches seem to sit fine with candidates who take the money to campaign in other states.

By becoming pivotal parts of the early nominating process, the bigger states would give more voters a chance to make a determination on who the next president might be. No more would they have to watch John Kerry essentially walk away withthe Democratic crown as he did after his late-January win in New Hampshire three years ago. And there’s no telling what might have happened if John McCain could have faced off against George W. Bush in the West in 2000, rather than see his campaign dashed after a nasty, racist-tinged face-off in South Carolina.

The counter argument to the potential primary date advances is that candidates would be held hostage to big-money interests in the larger states, which rely more on television advertising than on shoe leather. But the issues remain the same, and if John McCain thinks he can win the Republican nomination by saying Roe v. Wade should be overturned, as he did yesterday while campaigning in South Carolina, I say echo that stance in California and see how you fare.

The real question hasn’t been why the 800-pound gorillas such as California haven’t flexed their muscles, but why they’ve waited so long. Voters in big cities have largely been muted in the nominating process in the last 30 years, giving social conservatives in the hinterlands exaggerated influence in selecting candidates.

“There’s never any guarantees, but it increases the chance that California would have more of a say in the primary outcome,” said Dan Schnur, who served as communications director for McCain’s presidential campaign in 2000. “It would be hard to see the nomination being decided before Feb. 5 and even if the candidates can’t spend that much time here, it will definitely bring them here a lot more frequently between now and then.”

Recently GOP presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani spent almost an entire week here, something that probably would never have happened if California wasn’t on the verge of changing its primary process.

At the very least, candidates wouldn’t feel free to take the money and run — to such lively locales as Des Moines and Danbury.

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