California to vote early, but it could all be over

ON POLITICS

March 17, 1995|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- With all the speculation on whether Gov. Pete Wilson will seek the 1996 Republican presidential nomination, much is being made of the fact that his state of California has moved its presidential primary from early June to the end of March. The clear reason is to give the state a much bigger say in the selection of the nominee than in past years.

Despite an early assumption that Wilson would be able to tuck away California's 163 delegates, the largest state bloc at the GOP national convention in San Diego, the latest Los Angeles Times poll indicates that 59 percent of California voters surveyed want him to live up to his 1994 re-election campaign pledge to serve out his new term. If that attitude holds, a Wilson candidacy won't necessarily be a deterrent for other Republican presidential hopefuls to stay out of California.

Largely overlooked in all this focus on California's "early" primary, however, is the fact that as of now, because there has been a rush by other states to have their presidential primaries and caucuses count for more than in the past, 28 or 29 of them will have already voted by the time of the March 26 California primary.

Among them is New York, which will send 102 delegates to the convention, third largest number after California and Texas (123 delegates). New York's primary on March 7 will make the Empire State the first major state to select delegates after the traditional kickoffs of the Iowa precinct caucuses on Feb. 12 and the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 20.

This fact has taken on new significance with the decision of virtually all leading Republican officeholders in the state except Mayor Rudy Giuliani of New York to endorse Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole for their party's nomination, a year before New York Republicans go to the polls. The impressive display of solidarity behind Dole is credited to Sen. Alfonse D'Amato but notably includes new Gov. George Pataki and the state legislative leadership.

Giuliani says it's too early for him to even think about an endorsement, but Pataki shows no such restraint. He flatly predicts in a burst of enthusiasm that Dole will "carry every congressional district in the state and have every delegate." If so, New York could be the linchpin in Dole's third try for his party's presidential nomination.

Because he beat George Bush and Pat Robertson in the Iowa caucuses in 1988, Dole has little to win and much to lose in Iowa, and New Hampshire brought him crashing down in that same year, with his refusal to take a no-new-taxes pledge a key element. But assuming he weathers those two state tests, the New York endorsements can be very helpful in bringing the first large bloc of delegates into his fold next year.

However, it must be noted that while endorsements seldom hurt a candidate, they are no guarantee of success with the voters. In the presidential election years before 1972, when governors and other party bigwigs puffed cigars in back rooms and hand-picked convention delegates who anointed the party nominees, endorsements were golden. But with the proliferation state primaries starting in 1972, such endorsements usually help mostly in raising money, while proving to be uncertain measures of voter support in the primaries. Just ask Mario Cuomo how much Giuliani's endorsement helped him last fall when Pataki ousted him.

Perhaps the best example of the shortcomings of endorsements from party leaders came in 1972 when Democratic Sen. Ed Muskie mustered a very impressive array of big-name supporters, to the point that he was rated at the outset the odds-on favorite to be the party nominee. Fellow senators, governors and mayors flocked to his standard, but the voters were not stampeded. He won the New Hampshire primary, but unimpressively, and ran a devastating fourth in Florida, clearing the way for long shot George McGovern to take the nomination.

Still, the heavy early support by New York Republican leaders is an encouraging sign for Dole -- and a reminder to California Republicans that, even though they moved up their primary date, they could still be too late to play the decisive role they want in selecting the nominee.

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