California Race Tightens; McCain, Clinton Still Lead

SAN FRANCISCO--Voters in California have long been unwilling spectators in presidential primaries. Candidates tend to zip through the so-called ATM of American politics to fund their campaigns--this year's contenders have accepted over $50 million from Golden State donors--while the state's June Election Day has made its primaries largely irrelevant. Californians go to the polls six months after the candidates have duked it out in Iowa and New Hampshire. Bill Clinton, John Kerry, and George W. Bush all locked up their nominations long before voters here could have their say.

Next week, that will change. With the help of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the state's primary has been moved up this year to February 5, making California one of 24 states voting on Super Tuesday--and giving voters here front-row seats to the biggest, baddest battleground of this year's campaign. California, with its 36 million people (almost as many as all the early primary states combined), is rich not only in donors, after all, but in delegates: A total of 441 Democratic and 173 Republican delegates are here for the taking, the most of any state. Winning California won't necessarily mean winning the nomination, political analysts say, but it will be a huge victory that could send the contenders well on their way.

As the election results in Florida and South Carolina have winnowed the field, the front-runners in California have emerged. Polls show John McCain and Hillary Clinton leading. McCain has seen a 19-point boost in the past two weeks, jumping in front of Mitt Romney with 39 percent compared with Romney's 26 percent, according to a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll released Monday. Yesterday, he earned the endorsement of Governor Schwarzenegger. Three polls taken before the South Carolina and Florida primaries showed Clinton with a double-digit lead over Barack Obama. (A fourth, the Rasmussen poll, which has shown a much closer race, found her lead had narrowed to only 3 points this week.) With the pace of the race quickening--and with Rudy Giuliani and John Edwards both conceding defeat--the outcome is far from clear, experts say, and McCain and Clinton continue to face substantial hurdles across the state. "There's still a lot of uncertainty," says Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California.

The Republican election, in particular, is littered with obstacles that could affect the race. Most important, independents aren't allowed to vote in the GOP primary, which could give the state's conservative voters more sway. McCain has enjoyed strong support from moderate Republicans in his wins in New Hampshire and South Carolina, and his victory in Florida proved he could win a closed primary. But Romney has consistently won more voters identifying themselves as "very conservative," and analysts wonder if that might hurt McCain here. "The California Republican base is much more conservative than the party at large," says Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Edmund "Pat" Brown Institute at Cal State University-Los Angeles. In a recent poll, 40 percent of Republicans said the most important issue facing the country--ahead of terrorism, Iraq, and the economy--was illegal immigration. McCain has strong credentials on social issues and national defense, both of which are important to the state's conservatives, but as the face of last year's immigration reform bill, he has his weaknesses. "McCain's hope is to go after the mainstream Republicans, the more liberal, Rockefeller types," says Regalado. "Most of those [conservative] votes will be going elsewhere."

McCain's early wins and name recognition among western voters may give him enough momentum to overcome any reservations conservatives have about him, of course. "He's a great military hero, and he'd probably be the strongest one against [Clinton]," says Joe Cerrell, a veteran political consultant in Los Angeles. With Giuliani out (and now endorsig him), he has little competition for moderates. Romney is still fighting the perception that he has flip-flopped on bedrock conservative issues, and he may split the conservative vote with Mike Huckabee.

In the Republican debate this week, Romney portrayed himself as a managerial fixer who could juice the economy with his business know-how, but some analysts don't think that will be enough to woo California conservatives. Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College in Los Angeles, compares Romney to Peter Ueberroth, a Coca-Cola executive and former Major League Baseball commissioner whose reputation, like Romney's, was also partly built on organizing the Olympics. Ueberroth ran for governor here in 2003 promising to solve the state's budget crisis. He withdrew from the race, polling in the single digits. "That combination sounds like it should work with California Republican voters, but it doesn't," says Pitney. "Romney is just Peter Ueberroth with more hair."

In the Democratic race, Hillary Clinton has been reaping the rewards of the Clintons' longtime support in a state her husband visited frequently as president. A Field Poll released last week showed Clinton with a 39-to-27 lead over Obama among likely voters, which includes the many independents who are allowed to vote in the Democratic primary. Some 57 percent of likely voters are women, a group that strongly supports Clinton. One in five voters, however, is still undecided. "A poll is only as good as the day it's taken on," says Cerrell. And a lot has happened since it was released--from Obama's win in South Carolina to Sen. Ted Kennedy's blockbuster endorsement of the Illinois senator earlier this week. Edwards's decision to withdraw from the race also shakes things up, although many experts think it may actually help Clinton. In an Associated Press-Yahoo! poll conducted this month, 4 in 10 Edwards supporters said Clinton was their second choice. Only 25 percent said the same about Obama.

Obama's campaign has another, even bigger problem in California. Latinos make up one fifth of Democratic voters in the state, and they are polling 2 to 1 in favor of Clinton. (Hispanics voted for her by 3 to 1 next door in Nevada earlier this month.) Obama has been trying to make strides in the Latino community, but California, with its 14 major media markets and multimillion-dollar TV buys, doesn't lend itself to the retail politicking that he has relied on in smaller states. Obama recently bought ads on Telemundo and Univision, two Spanish-language television networks, and he is emphasizing his support for driver's licenses for illegal aliens, a position Clinton backed away from last year. He has also vowed to take on immigration reform in his first term, and he won endorsements from several important figures in the Latino community--including labor leader Maria Elena Durazo. Experts think Kennedy's endorsement may help him, too. "Kennedy plays huge with progressives and huge with Latinos as well," says Cal State's Regalado. "Many people still have photos of Robert [Kennedy] marching with the United Farm Workers and helping Cesar Chavez. There's a very strong connection with the Kennedy family."

But that may not be enough to push Obama past Clinton, experts say. She, too, has received blockbuster endorsements, from Antonio Villaraigosa, the popular mayor of Los Angeles, and Dolores Huerta, cofounder of the United Farm Workers--not to mention several members of Robert Kennedy's family. Still, says Regalado: "[Obama's] definitely going to pick off a few votes."

The gap between Clinton and Obama is likely to close between now and Tuesday, and it may even shrink enough to give Obama a partial victory, by awarding him a sizable number of delegates. The Democratic primary isn't winner-take-all, and delegates will be distributed based on the percentage of the vote each candidate receives. Which means, of course, that when the dust ettles in California, there might still be no clear leader in the overall race. The candidates may have to count their delegates, pack their bags, and look ahead to the next contests. Nebraska, Louisiana, and Washington are holding Democratic primaries on February 9. If California is a draw, hold on tight: This election may be just getting started.

By Justin Ewers