California Could Play Prominent Role in Upcoming Primaries

California has moved its presidential primary from June to February, and that could give the state its biggest role ever in selecting the Republican and Democratic nominees. KPCC's Frank Stoltze talked to two veteran political consultants about the coming campaigns in the Golden State.

Frank Stoltze: In 1964, Arnold Steinberg was already a budding Republican political strategist in the presidential primary that pitted Barry Goldwater against Nelson Rockefeller.

Arnold Steinberg: As a very, very young man when I was in high school, I can remember working for Barry Goldwater for president and I can remember the California primary was the showdown, like the old western movie – "High Noon."

Stoltze: It's been a long time since California mattered that much. Last year, state lawmakers sought to restore its prominence by moving the primary up to February 5th. Other states have joined that wave – leading some politicos to call the date "Tsunami Tuesday." But Democratic strategist Bill Carrick says the Golden State may still play the most important role, because of its sheer demographic heft.

Bill Carrick: Conventional wisdom is there'll be a Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama showdown somewhere on February 5th, and it's likely to be California.

Stoltze: Right now, polls show Clinton enjoys a double-digit lead over Obama in California.

On the Republican side, polls indicate New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani also has a double-digit lead over his closest rivals in the Golden State, Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson. But Steinberg says that doesn't mean there won't be a GOP showdown in California.

Steinberg: Rudy is a hot tempered guy. You never know when he could make a mistake that could be fatal.

Stoltze: Steinberg and Carrick point out that it's still early in campaign season. And, they add, it's hard to overemphasize the power of momentum. A candidate who wins Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina may render California irrelevant. On the other hand, they say, dark horses like New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson could leap to prominence here if they perform better than expected in the early states.

Steinberg: What would happen to Richardson if a lot of Latino voters found out he was Latino. People say that's a joke, but in reality it's not a joke.

Carrick: He obviously has a very non-Latino surname – Richardson – and when Latinos find out he is Latino, it could have a profound impact in California.

Stoltze: Some strategists may have hoped California would become like Iowa, where candidates routinely chat with voters over coffee. Not likely. It's too big. TV advertising remains king. Carrick says it costs a minimum of $3 million to advertise for ten days across the state. In this age of gargantuan campaign fundraising, it's still a lot of money.

Carrick: I think the interesting part of what we're going to see here is who spends money here. That's really going to be a big deal. Who's got a real advertising budget for California.

Steinberg: You know, California is a big money decision because you can't do it in a half hearted way. In other words, it's just going to be the proverbial tree in the forest that fell and nobody heard it if you put a little bit of advertising in. So some of these candidates are going to face the decision: Do I put in zero or massive?

Stoltze: What politicos call earned media – news coverage – will matter to the candidates, too. To the extent Democratic and Republican candidates decide to come to California to campaign, they'll probably scatter.

Carrick: Even though they are going to be campaigning in the same state, they'll be campaigning in entirely different parts of the state, on an east-west divide, to a large degree.

Stoltze: Democrats in the coastal areas, Republicans farther inland and Orange County, though they'll also have to spend time in Los Angeles.

Steinberg: You're going to have to go and hold visual news events here to hope to get on the tube to reach those Republican voters in Ventura County and Orange County that are watching Los Angeles television.

Stoltze: If local TV stations even bother covering the races much. Both Carrick and Steinberg say there's far less political coverage on TV news in the L.A. market than in San Francisco, Sacramento, San Diego, and even Fresno or Bakersfield.

Carrick: The bloggers have become the daily reporters.

Stoltze: Carrick and Steinberg offer some suggestions on where, beyond traditional sources, to find political news. Politico-dot-com is one. Real Clear Politics-dot com is another conservative blog. And then, there's public radio.