WASHINGTON -- The decision of the California Legislature to move the state's 1996 presidential primary from June to late March looms as both an opportunity and a financial headache for prospective challengers to President Clinton's expected re-election bid.
While it is certainly conceivable that the president, now suffering low ratings in the polls, might face a Democratic primary foe in 1996, the change of date figures as of now to be of more significance on the Republican side.
On the most obvious note, the earlier date will be an encouragement for Republican Gov. Pete Wilson to enter the presidential race, assuming he is re-elected next year -- an assumption that is far from a certainty for the beleaguered incumbent. California Republicans choose their national convention delegates on a winner-take-all basis, which means a prize of more than 200 delegates -- about 10 percent of the total and 20 percent of what will be needed for nomination.
At the same time, a late March California primary will oblige other Republican candidates to spend significant amounts of time and money in the state early in the process. In 1992, the candidacy of Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa effectively kept all challengers out of the Iowa Democratic caucuses, but the delegate prize in California is such that other prospective candidates with national reputations won't be willing to cede the state to Wilson if he does run.
A parade of GOP hopefuls has already marched on California, including Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, former Bush Cabinet members Jack Kemp and Lamar Alexander and Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas. All have made fund-raising appearances for the party or local candidates, picking up 1996 political IOUs as they go.
Bob Carpenter, executive director of the California Republican Party, says that while Republican presidential aspirants in 1996 will have to visit his state early and often, they aren't likely to skip the state delegate-selection events that are first on the calendar -- the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary in February and the numerous Super Tuesday contests soon thereafter, concentrated in the South.
Democratic political consultant Ray Strother suggests that "in a weird way" the Iowa and New Hampshire tests may be increased in importance by the early California date because they will be seized on by long-shot candidates who won't have the money to contest for California early. Only by doing well in the earliest events where less money is required to make a respectable race, Strother says, will any long shot be able to establish the kind of credibility that will bring in the funds required for California.
Republican political consultant Charles Black says the significance of the earlier California date may be that it will make the state the "clincher" for whichever candidate is the front-runner at that point, after Iowa, New Hampshire and Super Tuesday.
Regarding Wilson, he says, the prospect of picking up 200-plus delegates in his home state would be an inducement for him to remain in the race no matter how he might fare in the earlier contests.
Strother speculates that the earlier California date can be a boost for any Western candidate.
Had the state held its 1984 primary in March, he says, Colorado Democrat Gary Hart -- the upset winner in New Hampshire and six of eight contested Super Tuesday states over Walter Mondale -- might well have been the party nominee.
Hart subsequently won the California primary and captured 205 of the state's 306 convention delegates -- but not until June, by which time Mondale had patched together enough delegates himself to go over the top.
Wilson is expected to sign the enabling legislation shortly, quieting a longtime gripe of California voters and politicians that they have been effectively removed from the presidential nomination process by holding such a late primary.
Not since George McGovern beat Hubert Humphrey there in 1972 was California a factor in the Democratic choice, and not since Barry Goldwater defeated Nelson Rockefeller there in 1964 has the state been decisive on the Republican side.
But it could be Big Casino again in 1996.