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Golden State raises ante for 2008 campaign

The California capitol building in Sacramento.

KAI RYSSDAL: California legislators have moved one step closer to changing the national political debate. Today, a state Assembly committee voted to move up the date of next year's presidential primary from June to February.

Governor Schwarzenegger's said he'll sign that bill. But candidates aren't waiting for the ceremony. John McCain and Barack Obama were out here in Los Angeles this week. Hillary Clinton's coming next week.

Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani hit the rubber chicken circuit a couple of weeks ago. And he was entirely up front about how expensive politics in California can be.

RUDY GIULIANI: This is the size of a country. If you're running in the California primary you have to say to yourself, I'm running in a country, I'm not just running in a state . . . 37 million people, eight or nine media markets. I think it will have a big impact. The short answer to it is, you're gonna have to spend a lot of time here.

RYSSDAL: We gave Wade Randlett a call to get a sense of how that time and money might tip the political balance. He's a Democratic fundraiser in San Francisco. Right now he's dialing for dollars for Senator Obama. I asked him whether the early primary means candidates will have to raise even more money here.

WADE RANDLETT: You know, I actually don't think they're gonna be asking for more money. I think they're gonna be spending more money. They're gonna be . . . they were gonna be asking for as much as they can possibly get out of California — famously, the ATM of national politics. Often, presidential campaigns are 10, 15, 20 percent funded by just California donors alone. And all that money is exported. So the question is whether or not you want to have a hundred percent of those funds exported, or you actually want to keep some of them here, have some of them spent here. And then it has this very important spin-off effect of, well, we're actually talking to some California voters, and listening to them. And making sure that our issues are being addressed — which quite frankly are very different than issues in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina, Oklahoma.

RYSSDAL: Add it all up for me. How much do you think the two major-party candidates — all dozen of them or however many it is — are gonna wind up spending just on the primaries?

RANDLETT: I think it's gonna be in excess of a billion dollars. It's an unprecedented number. It's gonna be outside the public finance system. Because the public finance system, sadly, is a 30-year antique at this point, which needs some radical renovation to make sure that it is relevant to 2008 and 2012 coming forward. But a billion dollars is a lot of money. It's a lot of money that's gonna get spent not just on TV ads. It's gonna be spent on Spanish-language radio. It's gonna be spent on rallies and on having real staff here in California instead of just two or three fundraisers for each candidate. Which certainly, I think is better than taking all our California money and exporting it to other states where that would happen.

RYSSDAL: Let's flashback to 1992, though, when Bill Clinton was not incredibly well-known. Had Jennifer Flowers and all kinds of other scandals dogging him. He went out and shook every hand he could find. Could the same thing happen? Could you bounce back from that sort of thing in the dynamic that exists today?

RANDLETT: I think you put your finger on the one big difference between what happened then and what happens now with California primary being moved up. With the size of the media buy and the importance of the media, and the free media, and what would happen to somebody if they were hit by a scandal two, three, four weeks before the California primary . . . I don't think the $50 million that you would have to spend just in the California media market would even then be enough to pull you out of that problem.

RYSSDAL: And if they're dead in California politically, they're dead everywhere financially, right?

RANDLETT: Well, they're gonna be dead financially everywhere. And it's very hard given that Illinois's probably moving forward at the same day as California on February 5. New Jersey's probably moving forward, Florida may well do it, Texas may well do it. These are huge electoral states. Personally, I believe that this campaign — the primaries for both the Republicans and the Democrats — will end on February 5th of next year.

RYSSDAL: The primary schedule's compressed. I mean we've got a year primary schedule now. But doesn't that — on the other end of next February a year from now — doesn't that mean the general election schedule is elongated, and that changes the financial dynamics there immeasurably as well?

RANDLETT: It does. I think everyone's gonna be looking at a $3 to $400 million general election. Maybe you could get by on $200 million. These are very expensive endeavors, and the longer it is, the more expensive it is. The old saying that, you know, the election starts the day after Labor Day, or on Labor Day, that's in September. That is an ancient wisdom now. You're gonna be starting on February 5th in your general election. Take a couple weeks off, go to Hawaii, come back on the first of March, and you're gonna be going full-speed to election day in 2008.

RYSSDAL: Wade Randlett's a Democratic political consultant and a fundraiser up in San Francisco. Mr. Randlett, thanks a lot for your time.

RANDLETT: Thanks for having me.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.
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