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Campaign Strategists Turn Focus to California

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County clerks across California today begin mailing absentee ballots for the February 5 presidential primary. That means voters could begin casting ballots later this week. That's focusing some campaign strategists on California even as Tuesday's New Hampshire primary approaches. KPCC's Frank Stoltze reports.

Barack Obama (on television): And in New Hampshire, if you give me the same chance Iowa did tonight...

Frank Stoltze: Dozens of people crowded around a TV screen at Barack Obama's campaign headquarters near downtown Los Angeles. The Illinois senator had just won the Iowa caucuses.

[Sound of cheering]

Mitchell Schwartz didn't join the supporters around the TV. He occupied a nearby office and pointed to a map of California.

Stoltze: And what are these little green checkmarks? Now, is that the secret code?
Mitchell Schwartz: That is the secret code, so, you know, if you tell them the numbers, we're going to have to not let you out of here. We'll have to tie you up until February 6th. What it is is, in certain of the 53 CD's, we think we can get the extra delegate.

Stoltze: CD's are congressional districts. As Obama's California Campaign Director, Mitchell has marked districts where he thinks Obama can win more Democratic Party delegates than New York Senator Hillary Clinton or former North Carolina Senator John Edwards.

Presidential campaign war rooms across California are abuzz, and not just because it sends the most delegates to the nominating conventions. Schwartz and his counterparts on the other candidates' staffs know that many of the state's voters can start voting by mail this week.

Mitchell Schwartz: There's about 1.6, 1.7 permanent absentee voters in the Democratic Party. So we've targeted the, since we can't call all of them, we're going to mail them. We're making roughly 15,000 calls a day, all to the PAV universe for now.

Stoltze: PAV is shorthand for "permanent absentee voters." Former California Governor Pete Wilson knows the state's political dynamics as well as anyone.

Pete Wilson: Typically, people who request those absentee ballots make up their minds and vote a good deal earlier than people who go to the polls. So it's very likely that as many as perhaps half the people in California will have voted before the February 5th Tsunami Tuesday election.

Stoltze: That does not bode well for Wilson's preferred candidate, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. He polls well in California, but has virtually has dropped out of the news as he focuses on Florida's January 29th primary. Former California Republican Party Chairman Duf Sundheim says California's large absentee voter population presents a challenge to every candidate.

Duf Sundheim: You have to decide, "Am I going to front end this thing in California to capture these absentee ballot voters because I think they're going to vote early, or can I wait until it gets closer to the time they vote?"

Stoltze: The answer to those questions determines when to spend money on mailers, when to buy TV time and where – on expensive network affiliates or cheaper cable stations – and when to shift campaign staff to California. At the same time, Sundheim predicts absentee voters may hold off this year.

Sundheim: Especially with respect to the Republican voters that I've talked to. They have not decided on a candidate. So those people that have their absentee ballots on the Republican side, I would be very surprised if they do not put them in at the very last moment.

Stoltze: Giuliani, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, and Arizona Senator John McCain all appear to be viable Republican candidates. As Iowa was caucusing Thursday, California campaign staffs had already trained their sights on the next battle.

Teddy Schwartz: Hi, my name's Teddy and I'm helping on Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, and Hillary will be returning to New Hampshire for the run-up to the first in the nation primary.

Stoltze: It's all hands on deck, especially for Clinton, who finished third in Iowa behind Obama and Edwards.

Teddy Schwartz: OK. Thank you very much for your time. And this call is paid for by Hillary Clinton for president.
Stoltze: What did they have to say?
Teddy Schwartz: They said, "Sorry, I have to run."

Stoltze: Volunteer Teddy Schwartz, no relation to the Obama campaign's Mitchell Schwartz, still believed after this call that the person on the other end of the line was a committed Clinton supporter.