Politics & Government

Rule changes add to uncertainty of California primary

SIMI VALLEY, Calif.—It was no surprise to see all 10 declared Republican presidential candidates show up last week at the Ronald Reagan library in Simi Valley, north of Los Angeles, for their first debate.

California recently moved its primary up to next Feb. 5, shortly after the opening votes are cast in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. More important, the library is a shrine to Reagan, and the invitation came from former first lady Nancy Reagan. They would have come even if California didn't vote until 2009.

What was a surprise, though, was seeing one of the candidates, Rudy Giuliani, campaigning a few weeks before the debate in Oakland, Calif., one of the most liberal parts of the state.

Consider that Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee represents Oakland in Congress. She was the only member of Congress to vote in September 2001 against authorizing force in retaliation for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Her district went for Democrat John Kerry over Republican George Bush in 2004 by a wide margin: 86 percent to 13 percent.

Hardly Republican turf.

Yet California's new early primary date—along with new rules for allocating Republican delegates there—has produced an unusual consequence: Voters in such liberal areas as Oakland and San Francisco could have as much say in picking the Republican nominee as those in conservative Orange County or the state's central valley.

Until now, all the state's delegates went to the winner of the statewide popular vote.

Starting next year, the statewide GOP primary winner will get only 11 of the state's 173 delegates. The three top state party officials will each get a delegate. For the remaining 159, the winner of the popular vote in each of 53 congressional districts will get three delegates.

So even though Lee's Oakland district has only about 32,000 Republican voters (the average in the last two presidential elections), it gets the same number of delegates as the southern California district of Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, which has about 116,000 Republican voters.

"We're going to see a lot of Republicans campaigning in places they don't normally go," said Dan Schnur, a California-based Republican strategist.

That might help a candidate such as Giuliani, the lone supporter of abortion rights in the field, particularly if he stumbles in the states that vote before Feb. 5.

"I would think that Rudy Giuliani would play very well in the San Francisco Bay area and could very well pick up congressional delegates there," Republican National Committee member Tim Morgan told my colleague, Peter Hecht of The Sacramento Bee.

Then again, the few Republicans in liberal areas might be as conservative as their kin elsewhere and eager to get their chance to make a difference.

"Just because it's a blue state doesn't mean a Republican primary isn't dominated by conservatives. It is," Schnur said. Still, he added that California conservatives are probably less conservative on social issues than their counterparts in the rest of the country.

Regardless of who wins Oakland, this much already is clear: The road to winning California runs through different territory in 2008, and that might take Republican candidates to places they haven't visited before.


(Steven Thomma is chief political correspondent for the McClatchy Washington bureau. Write to him at: McClatchy Newspapers, 700 12th St. N.W., Suite 1000, Washington, DC 20005-3994, or e-mail sthomma@mcclatchydc.com.)