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California's Primary Move

California was not to be denied. The most populous state, with a hefty 10 percent share of delegates to national political conventions, long has had little say about who would run for president. Its June vote made it a primary-season afterthought.

No more. The Golden State has set in law a showstoppingly early primary date, the first Tuesday in March. That happens to be the same date chosen by every New England state (except New Hampshire, which, by its law, must hold its primary a week ahead of any other state) and New York.

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This means the presidential primary process in 2000 has suddenly become more front-loaded than ever. Whoever does well on March 7 could have an unbeatable lead. Some worry it's a giant step toward a one-day national primary.

Many Americans may see nothing wrong in that - getting the long political run-up over quickly. But others argue, with good reason, that this will emphasize, even more, candidates' ability to amass huge financial war chests. How else can you compete in vast media markets like California's? Also, there'll be little chance for relative unknowns (Jimmy Carter is the textbook example) to rise to the top in a succession of primary contests.

In the best of political worlds, there might be a rationally organized primary season with regional primaries rotating the lead positions every four years. All would be scheduled in perhaps a month-long period much closer to the summer conventions.

Instead we have something quite different - and perhaps more in keeping with America's inclination toward free-wheeling competition. New Hampshire will remain out front, providing everyone at least an outside chance of surprising the pundits and emerging as a dark horse.

In 2000, however, the candidates' trek through the snows of New Hampshire's White Mountains will definitely take place in the shadows of California's Sierra.

And that may not be a bad thing - adding an early touch of realism and breadth to the political dialogue.

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