By Thomas D Elias – It was bound to happen: Some smart Republican campaign strategist was bound to see the opportunities buried in the arcane new rules that party adopted four years ago for its Feb. 5 presidential primary.
Those rules turn California from a bastion of plurality-winner-take-all politics to a place that will essentially run 53 separate little primaries, with the leading GOP vote-getter in each congressional district taking three of the state’s 173 Republican convention delegates. Another 11 at-large delegates will go to the statewide vote leader and three more will be unpledged.
So far, the major Republican candidates have not bothered to change tactics to take advantage of the new rules. You won’t see former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani or ex-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney or onetime Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson or Arizona Sen. John McCain campaigning in West Los Angeles or San Francisco.
They come regularly to those precincts to raise money, but never to plump for votes and delegates.
And yet, plenty of delegates are available. The securely Democratic districts of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and House committee chairmen like Henry Waxman of West Los Angeles and George Miller of Martinez all have thousands of outnumbered Republican voters empowered under the new GOP rules to elect three delegates per district.
So while the top tier of Republican candidates concentrates on getting out votes statewide, using television and other standard tactics, they’re leaving an opening for bottom feeders with low campaign budgets.
Enter Ron Paul, a formerly obscure Texas congressman who has surprised political analysts both with his performance in debates and his ability to draw support and money via the Internet.
Paul opposes continuation of the war in Iraq, but favors using force against the Taliban and terrorists in Afghanistan. He opposes the North American Free Trade Agreement and amnesty of any kind for illegal immigrants. He’s even against continuing to give automatic citizenship to the children of the undocumented. He’d like to end the federal income tax and abolish most federal agencies. He opposes the Patriot Act and the federal war on drugs, and he’s against abortion rights.
Not exactly the prototype candidate for the districts of Pelosi, Waxman, Miller and other liberal California Democrats in Congress. But he’s threatening to take convention delegates away from the top Republican candidates in some of those districts.
It’s the economic way for a Republican to go. If Pelosi’s district, containing 34,000 registered Republicans, gets the same number of delegates as the Orange County district of Dana Rohrabacher, host to more than six times as many GOP voters, why not go after what’s available in Pelosi-land?
So Paul supporters with Libertarian-leaning views like his are organizing in hopes of becoming a national Republican presence out of proportion to their actual numbers.
If it begins to look like they might actually have a chance of cutting into the delegate haul the big guys expect from California, you might actually see major candidates forced to change tactics.
Rather than concentrating completely on the safe Republican areas of Orange County, San Diego County, the Inland Empire portions of San Bernardino and Riverside counties and the Central Valley, candidates like Giuliani and Thompson and McCain and Romney might have to attend to the long-neglected Republican minorities residing in mostly Democratic districts.
For it’s only a matter of time now before the top-tier Republicans realize their party in this state has created entirely new rules. New rules invariably generate new tactics.
Meanwhile, Democrats have had similar rules for each of the their last two California primary elections, but so far none of them has done significant organizing among the usually ignored Democrats living in places like Fresno and Redding and Bakersfield and Newport Beach and San Diego.
In fact, the two parties have essentially made California into 53 small states, but Paul is so far the only candidate to do anything about it.
Maybe he will have to make a strong delegate showing Feb. 5 before others take heed and change their approach for the 2012 primary. But it’s also possible major candidates will realize what they’re passing up by sticking close to the areas where their followers are the clear majority.
If they do, there’s even a chance the new rules will allow some actual New Hampshire-style personal contact between real people and candidates they usually see only on TV.
Paul is now pushing the major candidates in that direction. If he does well, he’ll have made a major contribution to American democracy this year even if he never had a real chance at his party’s nomination.