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California's GOP race could turn into a fight to the death

Story Highlights

• GOP rules allow states to decide how they allocate convention delegates
• California Republicans allocate all their delegates to who wins the state primary
• February 5 California primary looms large on 2008 primary calendar
• California represents 15 percent of the delegates needed to win the nomination
By Jeff Greenfield
CNN Senior Analyst
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SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- Here's a question for you political junkies: What do Republicans do that Democrats haven't done for years? Answer: In a lot of states, including right here in California, they still run their primaries like steel-cage wrestling matches: winner take all.

Back in 1972, Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern won the California primary and with it all of the state's delegates. At the convention that year, the anti-McGovern forces tried to change that, and impose a kind of proportional distribution. McGovern won that floor fight -- and with it, the nomination. But the Democrats decided to stop "winner-take-all" primaries for the future.

But the Republicans still leave it up to the states. In some, it depends on how big a chunk of the statewide vote you win; others, like Florida and New Jersey, do it by congressional district -- you win the district, you win those delegates -- with another group of delegates going to the statewide winner.

But, at least as of now, a couple of states that plan to hold their primaries on February 5, including Delaware and Missouri, are winner-take-all states -- if you win the primary, even by one vote, all of the delegates are yours.

And, oh yes, at least one other state that has proposed a February 5 primary is winner-take-all: California, which in 2004 had nearly 15 percent of the delegates needed for the nomination.

Now ask yourself: If you're a high-level aide to one of the eight or nine or 10 Republicans who may be seeking the presidency, where are you going to be concentrating your energy and time and money? The answer is obvious: if you think you have any chance to pull off a winner-take-all victory in the biggest state in the union, you're going to be putting everything you've got into California.

Two points bear mentioning. First, there's no way to know which GOP candidates would benefit from California. Yes, there's a moderate, pro-choice Republican governor, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger never had to navigate a Republican primary. GOP primary voters usually lean conservative.

Second, anything that enables reporters to spend more of the winter in California and less in Iowa and New Hampshire, is an unqualified good thing -- make that a great thing.

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