UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. – This is the first political primary of the 21st century.

Voters in the gaudiest, wildest state go to the polls Tuesday to select their gubernatorial candidates in the most costly, colorful, and bitter campaign of the year.

By any measure, the California race is the most important political campaign in the country this year. The state’s annual budget is about $ 75 billion, by far the largest in the nation. It is the only governor’s office in the eight biggest states that the Democrats have a realistic chance of capturing. And the winner will play a major role in reapportionment in 2002, when California, which has 52 seats in the House, may have as many as 60 – or almost one-seventh of the entire chamber.

But the California race also is significant because, in the political as well as popular culture, California is the national pacesetter. What happens here eventually happens everywhere. “From music to entertainment to the national dress code, almost all trends begin in California – and politics is no exception,” said US Senator Robert G. Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat. “We watch it very carefully.”

Here are the California political trends that are on display here – and that could be coming to an election near you soon:

1. Money may be the mother’s milk of politics, but it doesn’t make for the whole meal.

One of the gubernatorial candidates, onetime Northwest Airlines cochairman Al Checchi, may spend $ 32 million before Tuesday. He probably will come in third in the Democratic race. Another, US Representative Jane Harman, probably will spend $ 15 million. She is in second place. Lieutenant Governor Gray Davis, the smallest spender at $ 8 million, is the favorite.

But the likely triumph of Davis won’t mean that money isn’t important in politics. It is. A 30-second ad on the television program “ER” in Los Angeles costs $ 55,000. Even a candidate who is badly outspent uses most of his time asking for contributions and very little speaking to voters; Davis has had to raise about $ 35,000 a day just to remain competitive.

“The lesson of California,” said US Representative Sherwood L. Boehlert, who has contemplated a Republican gubernatorial campaign in New York, “is that you want to make a contribution but you end up spending most of your time trying to get contributions.”

That changes the rhythm of politics – and affects the sort of people who run for office.

“In a very highly visible race, where there aren’t many candidates, it is possible for an underfinanced candidate to win, but in a way it validates the criticism of the role of money,” said Robert Fellmeth, director of the University of San Diego’s Center for Public Interest Law. “But imagine if someone who was as little known and little qualified as Al Checchi ran without his money. He’d have absolutely no chance.”

Checchi almost certainly won’t win the primary, but he has shaped the character of the race more than Davis, a notion that has not gone unnoticed by political professionals elsewhere.

“The money people can buy their way into politics,” said US Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Colorado Republican. “Even if they don’t win, they degrade it and pollute it.”

2. Politics is, more than ever, an insider’s game.

Look at the media consultants of the three Democratic candidates. Bob Shrum, who works for Checchi, once was a partner of David Doak, who works for Davis. Bill Carrick, who is running Harman’s media campaign, worked with Shrum on the staff of Senator Edward M. Kennedy. And all three worked on the 1988 presidential campaign of Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri.

“They may be on different sides, but they have more in common than in conflict,” said Kam Kuwata, Harman’s campaign manager.

Media consultants are like baseball managers: They rotate with the seasons as principals in a game that is chilly if not outright frosty to outsiders. “They are the equivalent of the party hacks of 50 years ago, except that they make big bucks,” said Bruce Cain, associate director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California at Berkeley.

But consulting isn’t the only closed world in California politics. There are only about a dozen political writers who follow state politics, so it is possible to talk to all the insiders of a state of 32 million people within an hour.

3. Negative ads don’t hurt only the target.

Checchi was competitive until he started a negative assault, first on Harman, then on Davis. His negative commercials hurt his rivals, but in the end they hurt him even more.

“Sometimes you have to be thankful for the mistakes your opponents make,” Davis said in a speech here last week.

A Los Angeles Times poll shows that California registered votes, by a margin of more than four to one, believe Checchi has run the most negative campaign, followed by Harman, and then Davis. The same poll suggests that the three Democrats will finish in reverse order, with the least negative candidate, Davis, finishing first.

That’s happening not only in California. Last month, US Representative Jon Christensen, the favorite in Nebraska’s gubernatorial race, finished a distant third after a barrage of negative ads. The reaction in Nebraska was ferocious, prompting several of the state’s leading Republicans, including US Senator Chuck Hagel and US Representative Doug Bereuter, to assail Christensen for his tactics.

“A negative ad destroys the target and the sender,” said GOP pollster Frank Luntz, who believes that voters will not accept “multimillionaires who use their fortunes to destroy an opponent.”

4. Party means almost nothing.

Party has never been as important in California as elsewhere. In the early part of the centry, the California Progressives undercut parties by severely limiting their organizational capabilities, taking partisanship out of local government and even requiring parties to change their leaderships and their headquarters every other years.

As a result, parties, which never had the patronage base of parties that developed in Boston and Chicago, could not nurture their roots here. By the 1950s, California had cross-filing, allowing a candidate to register on both sides of a primary.

This year the blanket primary, which forces Republicans and Democrats to run together on the same ballot in the same contest, is further undermining party identification. “The notion of party is weakened this spring,” said James Fay, a founder of the Northern California Committee for Party Renewal.

“We are essentially running two general elections, back-to-back. It is good for the entrepreneurs who put out mass mailings but bad for people who care about the parties, which if nothing else has provided some sort of a ‘cue’ for voters to recognize where candidates stand.”

In the blanket primary, a Republican can vote for a Democratic gubernatorial nominee or vice-versa, sometimes for tactical reasons such as selecting a weak opponent for their rivals.

“People who are not part of a party can help choose a nominee,” said Sherman Lewis, a political scientist at California State University at Hayward. “Conservatives and progressives here should be worried that they have lost control over a choice that they used to have for themselves.”

5. Hispanics mean almost everything.

Hispanics are a rapidly growing part of the US population, economy, culture, and political system. The Census Bureau estimates that Hispanics, the fastest-growing voting group, could become the largest minority group within seven years, surpassing African-Americans. In the four years between Bill Clinton’s two presidential campaigns, Hispanics added 1.5 million people to the voting rolls.

In California, the Latino vote is twice as important now as it was at the beginning of the decade, and the Republicans’ share is down. Ronald Reagan won 44 percent of the state’s Latino vote in 1984. Dole won less than 10 percent in 1996.

“Latinos have identified the Republican Party as being unwilling to recognize their presence and the changes they are bringing to the state,” said Fernando Guerra, director of the nonpartisan Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. “They believe Republicans are willing to mobilize white voters against them for short-term political gain.”

Guerra and other analysts believe that Hispanics could account for one-fifth of the voters in Tuesday’s primary. “Not only are older Latinos turning out, but so are the newly naturalized Latinos,” said Monica Lozano, associate publisher of the Spanish-language La Opinion newspaper. “They have sworn allegiance to this country, take citizenship seriously, they are highly motivated. You can’t just define ‘likely voters’ as the people who voted the last four times.”

That’s why the major candidates advertised on Spanish-language television. Indeed, one of the important moments of the campaign was a bilingual debate (“California Hacia El Futuro,” or “California into the Future”) carried live on Spanish-language stations in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, Fresno, and Bakersfield.

6. Politics is increasingly a female game.

Six years ago California elected two female US senators. Twice, women have won the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Now the novelty of female candidates is gone. “There have been so many prominent women that one no longer has the sense that being a female brings out the female vote – or antagonizes the male vote,” said Sandra Powell, a political scientist at San Francisco State University.

But there still is a decided female factor. Women have a growing presence in public offices nationwide, and many analysts believe Clinton won in 1992 and 1994 because of his support from women.

In California, political professionals estimate that the Democratic primary vote will be about 58 percent female. Governor Pete Wilson won reelection four years ago against Kathleen Brown because he won many votes from moderate Republican and Democratic women.

“You can’t win an election with a pro-male gender gap in this state,” said Donna Lucas, who runs a political public relations firm in Sacramento. “The big question here is how to win over those moderate Republican and Democratic women.”

7. All politics is local.

Two big national issues – bilingual education and campaign-finance reform – are state issues in California, and the battles are more advanced on the state level than on the national level.

Californians address both issues in referendums on Tuesday’s ballot, in a demonstration of the appeal of bringing important choices straight to the voters.

“The answer here may be to let each state, and even localities, determine what is best,” said freshman GOP state Assemblyman Bill Campbell, who represents southeastern Orange County. “They are a better forum for these decisions because they are a lot closer to the people.”



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