All eyes on San Diego as Dems gather

Conventions, by definition, are for the hard core. And just as Star Trek conventions attract people wearing Spock ears who flash the live long and prosper sign, this weekend’s Democratic Party gathering is the proverbial bright light to the swarm of activists preparing to descend on San Diego.

But this year’s party confab has some allure to the casual observer, as well. Though the presidential-primary season is still in its infancy, this weekend’s gathering provides the first–and last–opportunity for White House hopefuls to address the party faithful. And with the front-loaded election calendar, candidates are swarming to the Golden State.

Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-New York, will address the convention on Saturday morning, while senators Barack Obama and Chris Dodd, and Congressman Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, will speak that afternoon. On Sunday morning, former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson will speak.

But party regulars say the accelerated primary schedule has altered the way candidates are treating California. “Given the way the calendar is stacked up, candidates are going to have to figure out a new way of campaigning here in California,” says Roger Salazar, a party spokesman who worked for Edwards in 2004 but is not affiliated with any campaign this year. “It’s going to be more like what you’d physically see in a gubernatorial race. The candidates are going to have to figure out how to do retail campaigning in a state where that’s essentially unheard of.”

But California is not New Hampshire. Any successful campaign here will call for spending big bucks in the state on TV commercials. Consultant Katie Merrill says that air war could begin six weeks before Election Day, which would drive the campaign all the way back into the holiday season this winter. “If that means advertising during Rudolph, then that’s what they’ll do,” she says, adding with a laugh, “Incidentally, a lot of voters watch Rudolph.”

While the new campaign schedule has introduced some new variables into the nomination process, certain things have not changed. Campaigns are hoping to use convention weekend to start shoring up support. Clinton announced an endorsement from Speaker Fabian N

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