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California Flexes Its Muscle

By Barry Casselman

The state of California, exercising its electoral prerogatives has moved its presidential primary from June to February 5, 2008. Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger, a man who made a career before politics of flexing his muscles, has inserted the nation's largest state into a larger role in the nominating process.

There had been a "gentlemen's agreement" for many years to let the small states of New Hampshire and Iowa be the testing gounds of those in each party who aspired to the nation's highest office, and even in this year's "reform" of adding Nevada and South Carolina to the early playing field seemed to confirm this principle. For decades, other and larger states had sat silently by while the atypical Granite State got all the attention and tourist cash, and they also stayed quiet after the Iowa caucus was added to the mix in 1976. These early caucus and primary "tryouts" became a public relations and tourist boon to these states.

After the national parties turned away from "smoke filled rooms" after World War II, the presidential primaries were scheduled at a leisurely pace over a five month period, with many of the largest states holding their voting at the end of the season. But the GOP race in 1952 was the last truly contested nomination contest that was unsettled at the opening of its party convention, although a few other races (including the Democratic race in 1984) were undecided until close to the conclusion of the primaries.

In 2004, the Democratic party establishment began to front-end the presidential primaries even more than before.

So it is no surprise that California has taken the step it has. And there should not be any further surprise when other large states such as Illinois, Ohio, New York, Florida, Texas and Pennsylvania do the same in the near future.

Of course, notwithstanding the threats of the party national committees prohibiting them from doing so, this will no doubt provoke Iowa and New Hampshire to reschedule their caucus and primary to an even earlier date, possibly even to December, 2007. They understandably want to preserve their distinction of being "first in the nation," and remaining as kingmakers in the presidential nominating process.

But the cat is now out of the political bag. While some momentum can still be gained from wins in these traditional early states, every major campaign for president will have to revise drastically, if they have not already, their strategy to win their party's nomination.

The early conventional wisdom is that the nominations will be "decided" on February 6, 2008 when the results from the previous day will be in. But this may not be the case. Since states, for the most part, no longer have winner-take-all contests, and there will likely be a relatively large number of serious candidates in the field in each party, it is quite possible that no one will come out of that first week of February with a commanding lead. It is even possible that one or possibly two of the nominations won't be determined until convention time.

The Republicans have three major candidates now in the race (Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney). It has two undeclared major possible candidates (Newt Gingrich and Fred Thompson). It further has a number of second- and third-tier candidates (Sam Brownback,Mike Huckabee and undeclared Chuck Hagel) who might go into a convention with at least a sizable number of delegates between them.

The Democrats also have three major candidates declared so far (Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards). They also have a number of announced second-and third tier candidates (Joe Biden, Chris Dodd and Bill Richardson) who will accumulate a sizable number of delegates in the primaries. Al Gore is an undeclared candidate who, if he decided to run, could play a major role, and would win a number of delegates in the primaries.

Finally, if it appears early that no one in one or both parties can put it together and wrap up an early nomination, governors and senators from many states could run as "favorite sons" as they did many years ago to claim their state's bartering power at a convention.

In short, we now have no reasonable idea who is going to be the Democratic and Republican nominees for president. I have argued in recent months, even without the California move, that this was the case. I now suggest that front-loading the contests in February and March won't necessarily mean an early decision. In fact, it may make it more likely that no decision will be made until the conventions. "Smoke-filled rooms" are now illegal, but caffeine-infused rooms could easily take their place. Someone could get to be president of the United States in high-powered gatherings serving capuccino or flavored lattes. So much for the cigar.

2004 now may have been, in hindsight, the last presidential election of its kind in America.

Barry Casselman writes about national politics for Preludium News Service.

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