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California to play a primary political role

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In a bid to give the nation's most populous state more say about presidential nominees, including perhaps himself, Gov. Pete Wilson signed a bill Monday that would move all statewide primaries here to the first Tuesday in March, three months ahead of the old June date.

California has not been crucial in choosing a major party's nominee since 1972, but along with New York and most of the New England states, which have already set their primaries for early March, California will now be among the handful of states whose elections immediately follow the New Hampshire primary and Iowa caucuses in the presidential contests of 2000."If voters were home runs, California would be Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa put together," said Wilson, a Republican who is barred from seeking a third term this year. "But the current primary process treats us like we can't hit our weight."

The chairman of the state Democratic Party, former state Sen. Art Torres, chose a groundhog metaphor, declaring that "California's shadow is now on the snows of New Hampshire's presidential primary."

Sponsors of the measure here have urged Oregon and Washington state to move their presidential primaries to the same date, March 7, to create a giant "West Coast primary" that would account for nearly a quarter of the votes needed to select the Democratic Party's nominee and just over a fifth of those needed to choose a Republican.

In 1995, Oregon moved its primary from May to the second Tuesday in March, but election officials there said Monday they knew of no plan to move the primary even earlier. In 1996, Washington moved its primary to March 26, also from May, and now its secretary of state, Ralph Munro, has asked the official commission that sets the primary date to make it coincide with California's.

Critics of the early primary plan have contended that it would require candidates to wage a brutally brief, bi-coastal campaign in which only the best-financed hopefuls in each party could hope to compete.

But the move could help Wilson, whose support for abortion rights makes him anathema to many of the conservative Republican voters who dominate the primary process around the nation.