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California is the biggest prize in front-loaded primary schedule

By Bill Schneider/CNN

December 8, 1999
Web posted at: 12:02 p.m. EST (1702 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Not a single vote has been cast in primary elections for the 2000 presidential race, but the Democratic National Committee has already began hearings on how to fix the process for the 2004 presidential election.

Complaints about the 2000 elections have centered on the heavily front-loaded primary season this year, which has fast-forwarded the primaries and made it so the nomination of both Republican and Democratic candidates could be essentially over in March.

The reason for the accelerated primary schedule has to do with California, the nation's most populous state. In the past, nominations were usually decided by the California primary, which was held on the first Tuesday in June and ended the process.

In 1964, Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller battled it out for the Republican nomination in California. The more conservative Goldwater edged Rockefeller out in California and changed the Republican Party forever.

Four years later, Robert F. Kennedy narrowly defeated Eugene McCarthy in the California Democratic primary. The same night, Kennedy was murdered and the course of history was altered.

In 1972, George McGovern beat Hubert Humphrey in the California primary, and the Democratic Party set off in a whole new direction.

But since 1972, the California primary has been an afterthought. California Democrats voted for Jerry Brown in 1976, for Ted Kennedy in 1980 and for Gary Hart in 1984, but each time the contest had been long over by the time the primary took place.

But determined not to remain the great afterthought in the 2000 election, California moved its primary to March 7 -- the earliest possible date.

California is now crucial for insurgent candidates in both parties. Democrat Bill Bradley and Republican John McCain are hoping to win New Hampshire to get the momentum going and then overtake the front-runners in California. Bradley, a former New Jersey senator, is the lone rival to Vice President Al Gore for the Democratic nomination and McCain, a senator from Arizona, is neck-and-neck with GOP front-runner George W. Bush in New Hampshire.

California has a history of anti-establishment voting, including its votes for Goldwater and McGovern. That could become an even more powerful theme next year because California has changed its ballot law. All candidates appear on one ballot, and voters of any party can vote for candidates of any party. That could help Bradley and McCain, who have a lot of appeal outside the party faithful.

If Bradley and McCain win California, Gore and Bush could attempt comebacks a week later during the primaries in the South. But then Gore and Bush would be the underdogs.

The other problem caused by an early California primary is money. Candidate have to raise a lot of it very early in the process to make a credible race in California, where there are multiple and expensive media markets.

Money has already proved to be a factor in the 2000 race. Five candidates have already dropped out of the race because they couldn't raise the money to compete without a single vote being cast.


ELECTION 2000

For GOP contenders, another state, a new debate format (12-6-99)

NHPrimary.com: Gore serves as 'anniversary gift' for couple (12-6-99)

Des Moines Register: Bradley courts Gore constituencies (12-6-99)

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