California open for GOP

The Republican primary season could not have worked out much better for California. With three different winners in the first three GOP presidential contests, it looks like the race will head into Feb. 5 wide open. And California will be the major prize in determining the next Republican presidential nominee.

The split result has also been the perfect scenario for Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York who has essentially decided to sit out this campaign season until the Florida primary on Jan. 29. Giuliani’s strategy was dependent on there being no clear front-runner, hinged on the prospect that he could pluck off enough delegates on Feb. 5 to emerge as a contender, if not the front-runner, for the nomination.

California has been a big part of Giuliani’s strategy from Day One, and Rudy’s team has been working diligently to make the most of the state’s primary rules.

Under California Republican Party rules, delegates will be handed out to the top vote-getter in every Congressional district. So the winner among the 26,000 Republicans in Xavier Becerra’s East Los Angeles district gets the same three delegates as the winner among the 200,000 Republican voters in John Campbell’s Orange County district.

California Republican Party spokesman Hector Barajas says the system makes it easier for Republican candidates in California.

“You don’t have to spend the $1 million to $2 million on TV that you would need to be on the air statewide for a week,” he says. “You can target your message to various parts of the state.”

Barajas, who lives in the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles — a Democratic stronghold — says he has received targeted mail from both the Giuliani and Romney campaigns.

Giuliani’s campaign has also set up a statewide phone-banking system, established by former state party COO Mike Vallente.

Working out of a state headquarters in Glendale, Vallente helped establish an outreach plan to Republican voters in some of the state’s most liberal areas.

Barajas says it’s good planning. “Republicans in my neighborhood are different than your stereotypical Republican voter,” says Barajas. “In my neighborhood, you have Republicans who are openly gay, who are more moderate than other Republicans. There’s a little different flavor here.”

But others say the party rules favor other candidates with more conservative appeal.

“California Republicans have a closed primary, and primary voters are Republican,” says Rob Stutzman, who is working for the Romney campaign in California. “Bill Simon, of all people, should know that.”

Simon, Giuliani’s California chairman, is the former Republican Party gubernatorial nominee. In 2002, Simon beat Richard Riordan, the moderate former Los Angeles mayor, in a Republican primary, and eventually lost to Gray Davis in the general election.

But candidates like John McCain and Giuliani, who continue to run strong in California, could find some additional support among those moderates. Could California moderates make the difference in the Republican presidential nomination?

As it turns out,  the state party opted to keep its voting closed to independent voters, which some say could hurt McCain or Giuliani in California.

Decline-to-states make up 20 percent of the state’s voters, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former party chairman Duf Sundheim wanted to open their party’s primaries to independent voters.

The move was quashed after Jon Fleischman introduced a resolution at the state party’s board of directors to maintain the closed primary system. The resolution carried on a 10-8 vote, and was never brought up for a formal vote before the party.

But among the presidential candidates, it was McCain more than Giuliani who was hoping independents would get a vote.

“There were some behind-the-scenes efforts that I believe were being promoted by the McCain campaign,” said Fleischman, who is neutral in the presidential race. “But when we turned the flashlight on, they all scurried into the dark corner.”

Fleischman said keeping the party closed may actually help Giuliani, especially if McCain is his chief rival in California. “A lot of Rudy’s support is from strong conservatives who don’t want independents in the primary,” said Fleischman.

But the party rules could be a boon to Romney, who enjoys most of his support from conservative Republicans. With new momentum coming out of the Michigan primary, a closed primary, and with financial resources that many of his rivals lack, Romney may be poised to make California a pillar of his own comeback.

Barring the emergence of a true front-runner in the next two weeks, California’s 179 delegates are likely to be divided among a number of GOP contenders. And that, ultimately, might help Giuliani.

That’s because Giuliani is running strong in four states that have winner-take-all primaries. Among them, those states — New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Delaware — could give Giuliani 201 delegates, almost one-fifth of the total he would need for the nomination.

“It still comes down to a mathematical calculation of how we get to the nomination,” said Giuliani spokeswoman Katie Levinson. “Our goal and our strategy has been to look at the number of delegates we need to win the nomination and work backward from there.”

But some doubt the system will have much effect. “I would be very surprised if it has a material impact,” Fleischman said. “It would be an anomaly when a district doesn’t mirror a statewide vote.”

But, he added, “the only way it could have an impact is in a very close race. If it comes down to the wire, you could see the delegates getting divided up all over the place. That would be interesting.”

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