GOP Presidential Hopefuls To Face Off in the New West

Ed Gillespie, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said California's presidential primary is going to "have a lot of sway." (By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 3, 2007

SIMI VALLEY, Calif., May 2 -- As 10 Republican presidential hopefuls gather here for their first debate Thursday, their political advisers are rewriting decades-old strategies about how to campaign in the nation's most populous state.

With the state's primary looming as the biggest prize in the massive national battle developing for Feb. 5, California has shed its status as a non-factor in recent nominating contests, say top campaign advisers and the state's veteran GOP activists.

New rules adopted by the state party, meanwhile, have scrapped winner-take-all voting for a system that awards three delegates to the victor in each of the state's 53 congressional districts. That change, coupled with the state's decision to move its primary date, has scrambled the GOP contest here 10 months before it takes place.

"It's like a mini-electoral college," Ed Gillespie, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said of California. "It's so big, and it was so late that generally it just affirmed the nominee. It's different this time. It's going to help make the nominee and have a lot of sway."

When the GOP hopefuls take the stage at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library for a debate that will air Thursday night on MSNBC, their audience will be a national one. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney will be looking for a bump in polls that have shown him stuck in single digits. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, the two leading candidates, will be trying to avoid mistakes. The lesser-known candidates will be looking for a way to get some attention.

And all of them are certain to evoke the memory of the late Ronald Reagan, whose widow, Nancy, will be on hand in the front row.

"Optimism will be at the heart of being at the Reagan Library," said Gerry Parsky, a trustee of the Reagan Foundation who ran George W. Bush's California campaigns in 2000 and 2004. "One of Reagan's greatest attributes was optimism. People want that."

Parsky, who serves as a senior economic adviser to McCain, said the dynamic in California has changed for Republicans since Reagan, Bush and Bush's father campaigned here in the 1980s and 1990s. Until the recent rule changes, money was all that mattered in a state where a week's worth of television ads can cost about $3 million.

Now, Parsky said, "it will require a good organization, an organization that's focused on going into local markets, and candidates that have enough resources to make their views known."

Senior aides to the candidates said they are examining new and novel ways to marshal their resources to compete in specific congressional districts in California, such as highly targeted mail, which costs much less than television commercials. By doing so, they might pick up delegates without having to spend money in the state's largest television markets.

Los Angeles is the nation's second most expensive media market, after New York City and just ahead of Chicago, strategists noted.

"You can target messages into districts where there are very few Republicans with the micro-targeting techniques that a modern campaign uses," said a Republican operative familiar with McCain's campaign strategy. "You take off huge amounts of delegates in a very cost effective way."

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