California wants early vote

SACRAMENTO -- The state Senate on Tuesday voted to move California's 2008 presidential primary from June to February to give the most populous state a larger say in national politics.

California would join at least eight other states that have or are considering moving their presidential primaries to Feb. 5.

"Right now, we don't matter," said Sen. Jim Battin, R-Palm Desert. "Because we are the biggest state, we will have the biggest impact."

Supporters said presidential candidates typically visit California to raise money for their campaigns but spend little time courting voters because the nominations usually are decided long before the traditional June primary.

Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata said California's diverse population also provides a better proving ground for candidates.

"Why would anyone go to Iowa in January if you could go to California?" said Perata, D-Oakland.

Even with other states holding primaries the same day, he said, "We will still be the biggest state with the most at stake."

The Feb. 5 primaries would trail the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries and caucuses in Iowa and Nevada. But they would eclipse those states in drawing candidates and national attention, Perata said.

The Senate approved the measure on a 31-5 vote. The Assembly is likely to send the bill through committees on an accelerated basis next week, perhaps delivering it by week's end to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who supports it. It will consider what steps to take on Friday.

California's regular primary would continue to be held in June, with the general election in November.

A February election will serve other interests in addition to raising California's profile in the presidential contest.

Perata and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, D-Los Angeles, see it as a way to extend their terms. They would like to place a measure on that ballot asking voters to modify California's term-limits law so they would be able to serve longer in their respective seats.

Perata said such self-interest is inherent in politics. He rejected the idea of making term-limit changes applicable to future officeholders, saying the state needs to keep experienced politicians in office.

"I believe there's a real problem with a lack of continuity here," Perata told reporters during a news conference before the Senate session.

Schwarzenegger has his own reasons for supporting a February ballot. He wants to reform how the state draws its legislative and congressional districts to make races more competitive. If an election were held in February, the ballot is likely to include a redistricting measure in addition to one seeking to extend term-limits.

The governor has taken no position on whether term limits should be eased, including whether he should be able to seek a third term, Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear said.

"It's not something the governor has focused on," McLear said. "If it needs to be part of the discussion to enact other reforms ... it's something he's willing to look at."

Nunez said bills for the early primary, term limits and redistricting should be considered on their own merits.

He argued for the earlier presidential primary during an appearance Tuesday before the Sacramento Press Club. States with earlier primaries receive a disproportionate share of federal money because candidates make campaign promises to attract voters there, he said.

"The only way we're going to get Washington's attention is by making California center stage in that presidential election," Nunez said.

Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Oklahoma and Utah already have scheduled Feb. 5 primaries. Florida, Illinois and New Jersey are among states considering it, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In West Virginia, Republicans also plan to select their choice for president during the state party's convention, which is scheduled for the first Tuesday in February next year.

Nunez and Perata are fighting a threat by the Democratic National Committee to penalize states that move their primaries. That could cost California nearly 100 delegates -- or about 30 percent of its total -- if it makes the change.

Senate Republicans were split on supporting the early primary bill. Sen. Dave Cox, R-Fair Oaks, said California already is a national power because of its population and economic strength.

"Voters know that moving the primary election is not about making California more relevant. It is about changing term limits and redistricting," Cox said. "Common sense tells us we should not be spending $50 million or $60 million to add a primary election."


Associated Press Writer Laura Kurtzman contributed to this story.


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