Candidates head for the West Coast

LOS ANGELES -- California, always a leader in fashion and fads, is poised to become a national political trendsetter as well in 2008.

The decision to move up California's 2008 presidential primary by four months promises to make the most populous state something it hasn't been in decades -- a potent player in picking White House nominees.

For years, the state has been a place candidates visited mostly for one thing -- money, sucked up in Hollywood or Silicon Valley. But with the primary about to move to Feb. 5, candidates are jostling for media attention, endorsements and donor checks with an intensity not seen in a generation.

In recent days, Rudy Giuliani pumped hands in San Diego, John Edwards told Los Angeles students to "change America," John McCain shared a stage with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Hillary Rodham Clinton talked clean energy with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

"In the past, California has only been the state where politicians come and pick your pockets," Democratic contender Bill Richardson, the New Mexico governor, said on a Los Angeles stop Wednesday.

"Now, California issues like protecting the environment, growth, traffic, water will be important," he predicted.

California's new clout is not assured. By rescheduling to Feb. 5 from June, California joins what McCain strategist John Weaver calls an emerging "national primary" -- a day when as many as 19 states could hold presidential contests.

The cluster of Feb. 5 states could eventually include New York, Florida, Illinois and New Jersey, diluting what could otherwise be the impact of a standalone contest. Still, it brings California's rich prize of delegates much closer to the front, where it most counts, and the candidates are reaching out for it.

You'd have to go back to 1972 to find a presidential primary with make-or-break drama in California, says political scientist John Pitney of California's Claremont McKenna College. That year, Democrat George McGovern defeated former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, tightening his grip on the Democratic nomination.

The stakes on Feb. 5 will greatly magnify the importance of earlier contests in Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Candidates who do well in those contests will be the obvious front-runners in the mega-primary that's forming.

"Those four early states will go a long way to deciding who wins on Feb. 5," said Democratic consultant Bill Carrick, who's worked on presidential campaigns for Bill Clinton, Dick Gephardt and Ted Kennedy and considers predictions of newfound California influence overstated.

"It's not realistic to think we are going to have a living room-style campaign like New Hampshire or Iowa," Carrick said.

Weaver says California will see a lot of candidate traffic, but "some states are only going to get a slight peek at the candidates -- there's no way people can try to cover all those bases."

But just tallying the number of candidates in the state this month makes clear many hope to collect delegates here. And the state's size -- 16 million voters -- along with the nation's biggest haul of electoral votes make California hard to ignore in a general election.