GEORGE BUSH: California.
JOHN MCCAIN: California.
BILL BRADLEY: California.
AL GORE: California!
TERENCE SMITH: They are all California dreamin'. This is the modern California gold rush, with candidates panning for the largest single bloc of delegates of any presidential primary. Make-or-break, do-or-die: All the clichés apply.
SHERRY BEBITCH JEFFE, Claremont Graduate University: California could well determine the nominees of both major parties for president of the United States.
TERENCE SMITH: Sherry Bebitch Jeffe is a political scientist at Claremont Graduate University.
SHERRY BEBITCH JEFFE: Particularly on the Republican side, California's delegates account for about 20 percent of the delegates necessary for the nomination. And on the Republican side, 162 delegates, it's winner-take-all. Here we are in play this year in a way that we haven't been in play for almost 40 years on the Republican side, and almost 30 on the Democratic side.
TERENCE SMITH: With its rich ethnic stew, its geographic size and population of 32 million, California is a kind of electoral Everest. Bill Carrick is a veteran Democratic consultant.
BILL CARRICK, Democratic Political Consultant: We have a lot of rank-and-file blue-collar labor voters. We have a significant number of African American voters, Asian voters, Latino voters. We have Democrats as conservative as any you find in South Carolina, and Democrats as liberal as the Italian Communist Party.
TERENCE SMITH: The polls on primary eve give the advantage here to the national front-runners, Texas Governor George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore. But political sentiment can undergo seismic shifts in this volatile state.
POLLING PLACE WORKER: I want you to put this in the ballot box.
TERENCE SMITH: This year, the California primary is more important than ever. It's been moved up three months from its traditional June date, and the votes will be counted two different ways: a "beauty contest" for most total votes, open to all voters; and the selection of delegates to the national conventions, which is limited to the registered voters of the respective parties.
BILL CARRICK: John McCain could win and lose on the same day. George Bush could win and lose on the same day. Vice President Gore could win-win on the same day, which is a pretty likely outcome. He may be the top vote-getter as Bradley's votes go down. Gore may be the top vote-getter overall, of all the candidates, plus get a pretty strong share of the delegates, although the Democratic delegates are proportionately selected, so there is no winner-take-all -- you know -- wipe-out effect.
ALLEN HOFENBLUM, Republican Political Strategist: My feeling is whoever wins the open primary in California will be the one giving the acceptance speech in Philadelphia.
TERENCE SMITH: Allen Hoffenblum is a Republican strategist and editor of the Target Report, a bible of California politics. He believes John McCain will do well in the popular vote contest.
ALLEN HOFFENBLUM: California Republicans, California voters in general, like these populists. Here in California we tend to be suspicious of government. And so when a candidate comes across or has that populous, anti-government 'throw the rascals out, let's clean up government,' that's always had a wild appeal here in California.
TERENCE SMITH: Despite California's central importance in tomorrow's coast- to-coast voting, the presidential primary has not been the big news in Los Angeles this past week. Local television coverage has focused on the ongoing scandal in the police department, the Reagans' 48th anniversary kiss and a report on the invitations to the upcoming Oscars.
NEWSCASTER: Very intense rain being reported ...
TERENCE SMITH: And the biggest news of all, the weather. For Karl Rove, the chief strategist for the Bush campaign, it's a frustrating climate.
KARL ROVE, Chief Strategist, Bush Campaign: Well, it's a tough state to campaign in. First of all, they're not very political. Californians have lots of other things on their minds beside politics. And second of all, it's a very tough state to break into the major media markets. I mean, Los Angeles, in which 46 percent of the Republican primary voters live, is virtually impossible to get coverage. We'll spend millions of dollars, and basically have enough television slots for people to see roughly two spots and remember them, and that's it.
TERENCE SMITH: This is the California conundrum. The state is so large and complex, with so many media markets and the local political coverage so miserly, especially in the Los Angeles area, that the candidates are forced to rely on costly paid advertisements to get their messages out.
BILL BRADLEY IN AD: I think everybody in America should have access to quality health care.
TERENCE SMITH: And spend they have. According to the nonpartisan campaign media analysis group, the candidate at the bottom of the polls, Bill Bradley, spent over $3.5 million on commercials in California through the end of last week.
AL GORE: I want to be president in order to fight for you.
TERENCE SMITH: Vice President Gore, resting on a comfortable lead, spent just under $3 million.
AD ANNOUNCER: Governor George W. Bush, he is a once-in-a-generation leader …
TERENCE SMITH: On the Republican side, the well-funded George W. Bush spent about $2.9 million on ads.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: You can't turn on your TV without seeing an ad from the establishment trying to fool you about me.
TERENCE SMITH: John McCain trailed with $2.4 million. But how effective are the ads? Consultant Bill Carrick questioned the message of this Bill Bradley ad featuring basketball star Michael Jordan.
MICHAEL JORDAN: That's why I'm supporting Bill Bradley for president. Shouldn't you?
BILL CARRICK: I've had colleagues who focus-grouped this ad and have found among younger voters, because Michael Jordan has done so many professional endorsements, that they couldn't really distinguish whether this was something that was just another endorsement by Michael Jordan, as opposed to an actual political endorsement.
AD ANNOUNCER: He's taken on the worst polluters in America.
TERENCE SMITH: On the other hand, Carrick admired the targeted message of this Gore ad.
BILL CARRICK: It's a very good California ad. It's right on the issues that people care about here. And it not only is it good in the primary, but it sort of turns the corner toward the general election, and positions him well for his potential Republican opponent.
TERENCE SMITH: Among the Republicans, a controversy erupted during the weekend over an ad independently funded by wealthy Bush supporters in Texas, attacking John McCain's record on the environment.
AD ANNOUNCER: Last year, John McCain voted against solar and renewable energy. That means more use of coal-burning plants that pollute our air.
TERENCE SMITH: Senator McCain immediately cried foul and demanded that the Bush campaign pull the ads.
'FACE THE NATION' JOURNALIST: Do you think you should stop these ads?
GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH: You know, let me say something to you. People have the right to run ads. They have the right to do what they want to do under the First Amendment in America. I don't think these ads are particularly helpful to me.
'FACE THE NATION' JOURNALIST: So you have a right to ask them to stop.
TERENCE SMITH: Today in California, Senator McCain tried to turn the ad against Governor Bush.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: And we ask Governor Bush to do what he refused to do all day yesterday on nationwide television, and tell his sleazy Texas buddies to stop these negative ads. Take your money back to Texas where it belongs. And don't try and corrupt -- (cheering) -- and don't try, don't try to corrupt American politics with your money.
(Cheers and applause)
TERENCE SMITH: From the early days in New Hampshire to here in the California primary, John McCain's campaign has thrived on the oxygen of free-media press coverage. In Los Angeles, he interrupted his campaigning to tape an edition of the MSNBC political talk show, "Hardball" here at the University of Southern California campus.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: We want to be a big party. We want to reach out to these young people; we want them with us. We want them to be part of this great experiment. That's what this campaign is all about.
TERENCE SMITH: That same relentless pursuit of free media led both Republicans to attempt some humor on the late-night talk shows.
DAVID LETTERMAN: I know that campaigning is difficult work. How do you look so youthful and rested?
GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH: Fake it.
DAVID LETTERMAN: And that's pretty much how you're going to run the country?
JAY LENO: You consider yourself a confrontational guy?
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Not at all. Every year in the Senate I win Miss Congeniality. It's usually a unanimous vote.
TERENCE SMITH: Bill Bradley, who once joked that he'd have to rob a bank to get the media's attention, even took to calling reporters on Al Gore's campaign bus. Exceptions to the rule in California include the state's big newspapers, like the Los Angeles Times, which has featured extensive campaign coverage, and that staple of the traffic-clogged Los Angeles area, talk radio. Michael Jackson is a veteran host.
MICHAEL JACKSON: We began with our conversation with Governor George W. Bush of Texas. We heard an extract of the conversation held earlier this morning with Senator McCain. We heard a replay of our conversation with Senator Bill Bradley.
TERENCE SMITH: A crucial component in this primary, and even more in the general election, is the fast-growing California Latino vote. It has doubled in the last decade, and could constitute 15 percent of the total in the fall. Sherry Bebitch Jeffe:
SHERRY BEBITCH JEFFE: Well, this year the Latino voter is the equivalent of the soccer mom. Latino vote will have a significant effect on this primary.
TERENCE SMITH: No surprise, then, that the candidates have made their way to the Los Angeles headquarters of Univision. KMEX, its flagship station, is the No. 1 affiliate in the region, outstripping all the English-language stations. In separate appearances, the candidates demonstrated their varying levels of fluency in Spanish.
(Candidates speaking Spanish.)
And several have run Spanish-language TV ads, the first in a presidential primary. Governor Bush, who attracted 49 percent of the Hispanic vote in his last race in Texas, returned to Univision two weeks ago to conduct a statewide satellite town hall meeting, the first ever by any presidential candidate.
Rosa Maria Villalpando, the political reporter for KMEX, believes all the attention is having an impact on the Latino voter.
ROSA MARIE VILLALPANDO: People are listening. What's out there? The thing I got is that they feel that they are now a part -- they can be a part of the system, and they are listening. They are deciding who's going to be -- who talks better, you know, to their needs?
TERENCE SMITH: Apart from the Latino vote, Sherry Bebitch Jeffe believes this primary has a significance beyond tomorrow's balloting.
SHERRY BEBITCH JEFFE: This blanket primary is as close as we're going to come to a dress rehearsal for November. It is the purest test of the strength of all the major candidates, and that will count for something.
TERENCE SMITH: And it seems that the California public may sense that. State officials are projecting the largest primary turnout in 16 years.