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Inside Politics

Votes, contributors make California a key player in 2008

Story Highlights

• California legislation moving the state's primary to February 5
• New primary gives state more pull in choosing candidates from both parties
• Democratic strategist: Clinton legacy strong in California
By Bill Schneider
CNN Senior Political Analyst
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LOS ANGELES California (CNN) -- In past elections, presidential candidates flocked to the Golden State for the fuel that runs their campaigns: cold cash. Republican and Democratic presidential candidates were not concerned about California voters because the state's presidential primary was held long after the nominees were chosen.

But California's role in the 2008 presidential contest has changed now that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has signed legislation moving the state's primary to February 5. As many as 25 states have either scheduled or have discussed moving their primary to the first Tuesday in February. Democrats and Republicans alike have taken notice.

"It has infuriated us for a long time that we [Californians] don't get to have a bigger say in who our choice is for president," said Democratic strategist Darry Sragow.

Just this past weekend, six Democrats addressed the California Democratic Convention and later this week, 10 GOP candidates are expected to show up at the first Republican presidential debate. It will be held on what has become sacred ground for Republicans: the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum.

In a bit of irony, the money that candidates once withdrew from the California "ATM machine" to pay for television ads in other parts of the country will now have to be reinvested in local markets.

"California is incredibly expensive," Sragow said. "A week of TV in California -- not a big week, but just a week of TV ads -- is about $2 million."

Democratic and Republican hopefuls are honing their electoral messages to try to win over voters from San Diego to Oregon and all points in between.

For Democrats, it's about taking the country in a different direction.

"We are the people who want change, we're the people who are extremely dissatisfied," Sragow said. "This state has never been a Bush state, not even close to a Bush state."

So far, the Democratic candidates are right on point.

"California, if you want a new kind of politics, it is time to turn the page," Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, said to an enthusiastic audience at the state Democratic convention this weekend.

But Obama and the other Democratic hopefuls must contend with a legacy -- the Bill Clinton legacy. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-New York, is also making a strong push in the state, where her husband, the former President, could be a strong asset.

"There's a real fondness for the Clintons in California, longstanding," Sragow said.

On the Republican side, you would expect the governor to have a lot of influence.

"He's Arnold Schwarzenegger," Sragow said. "He's the governor to begin with. And he's bigger than life, whether you like him or don't like him."

Schwarzenegger calls himself "post-partisan." But only registered Republicans can vote in next year's Republican primary. "It is up to the individual parties to determine whether they want Independents to vote in their primary," Republican strategist Allan Hoffenblum said. "Democrats said yes. Republicans said no."

Moreover, the Republican presidential primary has different rules. "It is winner-take-all by Congressional District," Hoffenblum said. "There are 53 Congressional Districts. Whoever gets the most votes in a district gets three delegates." That's three delegates per district, whether the district has 200,000 registered Republicans like the 48th Congressional District in Orange County or 33,000 registered Republicans like the 9th Congressional District in the San Francisco Bay Area.

So California's Republican primary is essentially 53 separate primaries. Some are conservative farm districts while others are sleek coastal resorts. In a state as diverse as California, that means a lot of different Republicans could come out of the primary as winners.


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