SAN FRANCISCO, Feb. 25 -- It may be the state with the most people (35 million) and more delegates (370) in Tuesday's primaries than any other, but California is getting the ho-hum treatment from the presidential candidates -- and vice versa.
While the major Democratic candidates are busy courting some of the other nine Super Tuesday primary states, the most visible campaign here is for two budget measures, Propositions 57 and 58, that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) has been relentlessly promoting on the airwaves for the past two weeks.
As Art Torres, the state Democratic Party chairman, put it: "The California presidential primary? It's [yawn] all very [yawn] exciting."
Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) arrived Wednesday in California, and Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) arrives Thursday, in time for a televised debate in Los Angeles with the other remaining candidates, Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (Ohio) and Al Sharpton. Both Edwards and Kerry plan additional campaign appearances, but in a state as unwieldy as this one, where the candidates have little in the way of a real campaign structure, relatively few voters are likely to see the contenders firsthand. Some local pundits are blaming San Francisco's gay-marriage march, which has many politicians tripping over their tongues, as the no-win issue keeping the campaigns away. But a new California Field Poll explains the main reason there is no there there: Kerry is leading Edwards by 3 to 1, 60 to 19 percent.
Before the Iowa caucuses, Kerry and Edwards were receiving single-digit support among Democratic primary voters. Former Vermont governor Howard Dean was the early favorite, and retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark was second. The new poll underscores how much California Democrats are eager to get on with the general election. Denied the range of choices that voters in the earliest primaries had before Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.), Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), Clark and, finally, Dean dropped out, voters are following the national trend and appear to be settling on Kerry to get on with the battle to unseat President Bush.
"I think that's really what's driving it," said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll. "The voting public has been pretty much been moving as a national entity. California . . . is pretty reflective of what's going on in national polls."
California Democrats are more dissatisfied with Bush than ever, according to the poll, taken Feb. 18 to 22. He received his worst approval ratings since taking office, with 43 percent to 51 percent disapproving, the reverse of just one month ago. Among Democrats, 78 percent disapprove (as do 56 percent of independent voters), while 78 percent of Republicans approve of his performance.
California has 6 million registered Democrats and (2.4 million "decline to state" or independent voters) to the GOP's 5.3 million. "And independents vote Democratic," said Bob Mulholland, strategist for the state Democratic Party. "That's why nine of the 10 statewide elected officials including California's two U.S. senators are Democrats." The Field Poll backs up his claim, with most nonpartisan and minor party voters favoring the top two Democratic contenders.
Bush, who plans to campaign in California in the days after Tuesday's primary, trails Kerry and Edwards in general election matchups, losing to Kerry by 53 to 41 percent and Edwards by 51 to 43 percent.
Because the electability appears the same for the two candidates, Edwards should still have a shot at winning enough delegates here to stay in the race. But California political observers are not expecting major upsets. Although they have nothing against the front-runner, Democratic leaders are continually frustrated that despite their attempts to make California a major factor in choosing candidates, the state is still following the lead of tiny states that are not representative of the nation at large.
"That's the problem with these darn primaries so early in the game," said Torres, the party chairman, explaining why voters are blase about this election. "People are not engaged. Where they are engaged is in exhibiting opposition to some of the local ballot measures."
California has tried several ways to beat irrelevancy. In 1996, the state moved the primary from June to March. But other states moved their primaries even earlier. In 2000, to help goose voter turnout, the state held a blanket primary that let any voter vote for any party's candidates. But the experiment was soon over; after the election, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the initiative that created it unconstitutional.
Independent, or "decline to state" voters, as nonpartisan registrants are known here, can still vote in the Democratic presidential primary, because the state amended its bylaws to allow independents this time to ask for a Democratic presidential ballot.
No one sounds more frustrated than the Dean supporters. Richard Jacobs, chairman of the California Dean for America campaign, which plans on keeping its Los Angeles office open through Tuesday, said he is incredulous at the way the primaries have played out.
"How is it possible," he said, "that 122,000 white people in Iowa can decide what's going to happen in California and thereby the rest of the country? We have more voters in L.A. County alone than in five or six of the early primary states put together."
Jacobs, who left his job as a money manager to be a full-time volunteer for the Dean campaign in January 2003, has reason to feel frustrated. Of the $41.3 million Dean raised in 2003, nearly $4 million came from California -- more than any other state. More than 100,000 people signed up for mailings on Dean's California Web site. High-profile Hollywood types, including Rob Reiner, were playing key roles in organizing and fundraising. Dean had far more endorsements than any other candidate, including that of the state attorney general, treasurer and secretary of state, the Latino Legislative Caucus, the California Teachers Association and the California School Employees Association.
"We had a really interesting coalition of progressives in this state who were excited about the Dean candidacy," Jacobs said. "And, by the way, they still are."
For the die-hard Dean people, Tuesday's election offers a last-ditch chance to give their candidate the power he needs to help shape the party platform at the Democratic National Convention. If Dean receives 15 percent of the vote, he also receives delegates, the prize his supporters are shooting for.
Although polls show only 12 percent of the voters choosing among the "other" candidates, 11 percent of Democrats and 15 percent of independents are still undecided. Stanley West, a management consultant who organized the Black and Latino Alliance for Dean in Los Angeles, said he is urging voters to choose Dean.
"What I always hear," said West, who has spent four nights a week for several months volunteering on the Dean campaign, "is that Dean has the best ideas. I have never seen anybody talk about any position that Kerry holds that somebody finds wonderful. It's all about I'm upset about Bush."