Will the Feb. 5 primary in California play a role? 

There’s no way to sugarcoat the sheer bizarreness of Iowa’s first-in-the-nation process of choosing presidential nominees via local caucuses rather than popular vote.

It’s an undemocratic and archaic system in a tiny and unrepresentative state and should be meaningless by any rational standard. And the "winners" rarely go on to win their parties’ nominations, much less the White House.

Yet, the presidential hopefuls and political media dutifully invade the state, tramp through the snow and play the game every four years, and in the aftermath, the talking heads, both partisan and supposedly objective, go into full spin cycle, telling us what it all means.

From now on, it will be a nonstop feeding frenzy of primary elections, polls, debates and other bits of political theater until, by some mysterious alchemy, the grandees of the national media anoint two survivors as the parties’ unassailable front-runners.

It’s a heck of a way to choose a president, or at least the two nominees for the presidency, but it is what it is. For Californians, the question is whether we will — or even want to — be part of it.

For years, California’s politicians have complained that presidential contenders visit the state to raise money from its pockets of wealth but don’t pay any attention to California’s issues, whatever they may be, because the state’s June primary comes too late to affect the process. Actually, what most bothered the state’s politicians was that presidential candidates were paying them insufficient attention.

Several attempts were made to cure that ego-deflating situation, without success, but last year Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislators agreed to bump the state’s presidential primary to Feb. 5, promising that it would make California relevant. The real reason for the move probably was to allow legislative leaders to place a measure on the ballot to modify term limits and thus extend their political careers, but no one talked about that, of course.

Other states were not about to allow California to muscle into their game. As one might have predicted, there was a great movement to push other presidential primaries ahead of California’s, or at least no later. Eventually 21 other states adopted Feb. 5 as their primary date, creating what some have called "Super Tuesday."

Presidential candidates have been visiting California, but their relatively few contacts with voters have rarely been more than adjuncts to private fundraising events, and there’s certainly nothing uniquely Californian about their stump speeches.

All in all, California is pretty much in the same situation as it was before the primary was moved up — at no little cost, incidentally. It’s still unlikely that the state will play a decisive role in choosing this year’s presidential nominees, especially since it will be just one of 22 states voting on Feb. 5. But it could play some sort of supporting role, if there are still contests a month hence.

At the moment, two of Iowa’s losers appear to be leading in California, or at least they were when the Field Institute and the Public Policy Institute of California conducted polls in December.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who ran a somewhat embarrassing third in Iowa, held fairly strong leads over Sen. Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards in both California polls, although she had lost some ground from earlier.

Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who didn’t even campaign in Iowa, held a diminished lead over his rivals in California, with Iowa winner Mike Huckabee scoring a strong second in the Field Poll.

Three weeks from now, we’ll know whether California will truly play a role, or whether the much-ballyhooed Feb. 5 primary will have been merely a subterfuge to help some state politicians remain in office.

Dan Walters, The Sacramento Bee

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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