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California Jumps the Gun

Depending on whom you ask, California’s near-certain move of its primary up to February 5, 2008, is either a voter’s godsend of a campaign’s nightmare.

One thing is certain: It won’t halt the stampede of contenders to Hollywood looking for donors. In fact, it may accelerate it.

California’s state Senate voted overwhelmingly today to make the switch from a June primary to a February one, and the state Assembly could decide as early as next week on the matter. The bill has the support of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Supporters say that it will force campaigns to look to California — and by extension the entertainment industry — as more than an ATM machine. Rather than troll the state for its rich base of donors, campaigns also will have to actually campaign in the state, as its primary will no longer be so late in the process as to have no impact. Candidates will have to attend rallies, do meet-and-greets and make union hall visits, etc.

“There’s a huge resentment over the fact that if you want to meet Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, you have to pony up $2,300,” says producer Rick Jacobs, whose group, the Courage Campaign, has launched a petition drive in favor of moving the primary. “They are running campaigns for rich people.”

Jacobs, who chaired Howard Dean’s California campaign in 2004, describes the current campaigns as an Amway like process of “multi-level marketing,” where well-connected bundlers are tasked with finding even more bundlers.

“It becomes sterile,” he says. “That is not how you build a movement.”

With an earlier date, state issues will gain national recognition, just as voters in Iowa and new Hampshire have had the spotlight in the buildup to recent presidential races. The Los Angeles City Council passed a resolution today in favor of the move.

Yet others worry that an earlier primary will simply make the race more about money, rather than ignite any kind of grassroots movement. With California’s size, candidates won’t go door-to-door, as they do in Iowa and New Hampshire, but will be forced to wage campaigns on the airwaves, in 30-second advertisements.

By some estimates, it will cost $20 million just to run a campaign in the state.

“Anybody who plays in the Feb. 5 primary has got to have a substantial amount of cash to play in this environment,” says Sim Farar, a major donor to Clinton’s campaign.

“It makes it exciting to be in California,” says Lawrence Bender, who is backing Obama, “but as the cliche goes, politics is more and more about money. You are getting people out here, but California is all about TV.”

Particularly vulnerable will be second-tier candidates like Chris Dodd, Tom Vilsack and Joe Biden, who already are trying to break through in a media environment dominated by Clinton, Obama and John Edwards. Even if any of these second-tier contenders make a surprise showing in Iowa or New Hampshire, they will have to contend with the firewall that is California. And many Golden State voters may have already cast their ballots even before Iowans caucus, as absentee ballots will be mailed out in early January.

With other states, like Florida and even New York, looking to early February primaries, fund-raising consultant Noah Mamet says the result will be a “national primary” — and campaigns are only now waking up to the reality of what lies ahead. That includes the hiring of campaign organizers, and coordinating staff and volunteers for battlegrounds most had not anticipated.

“In reality, to candidates it means they will need more money than ever,” Mamet says.

In other words, there are bound to be some weary donors as campaigns try to raise record amounts for the race. Political consultant Andy Spahn, who is helping organize next week’s big fund-raiser for Obama, says they are “doing very well” in drawing what is expected to be a large crowd. But he admits that there have been a few comments about the $2,300 cost — the maximum a donor can give to an individual candidate for the primary.

“That comes up,” he says, “and I simply say, ‘Put it on your credit card.'”

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