SAN FRANCISCO – When California Democrats gather for their annual convention this weekend, just two back-of-the-pack presidential contenders will appear — Rep. Dennis Kucinich (search) and civil rights leader Al Sharpton (search).
Most of the candidates will be in Iowa, where Monday's caucuses are the first true event of the presidential campaign. But the lack of big-name headliners also may reflect the California party's somewhat diminished status in the wake of Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger's (search) takeover of the governor's office.
For a party that once controlled the Legislature and all statewide offices, California Democrats have struggled through an identity crisis since the recall of Gov. Gray Davis (search). They had to grind out a win in the San Francisco mayor's race last month against a Green Party upstart, and the once-moribund California Republican Party outraised them by $6 million in 2003, $13.7 million to $7.5 million.
Party leaders say the convention will help them regroup and find a way to counter not only Schwarzenegger but President Bush , whose improving ratings in recent California polls — in large part due to the capture of Saddam Hussein and better economic news — raise the possibility that Democrats may need to wage an expensive battle to hang onto the state's 55 electoral votes in November. California's primary is March 2.
"The party has to start to make sense out of Schwarzenegger," said Bruce Cain, a political analyst at the University of California, Berkeley. "He's a political figure they haven't seen before, and Democrats appear confused tactically."
Party insiders in California and nationally have seen some of their agenda overtaken by a growing class of Internet-savvy activists in such groups as MoveOn.org and Meetup.com. Howard Dean 's Internet-based campaign seized on the phenomenon and propelled the former Vermont governor to front-runner status. Party officials are still struggling to catch up.
"Do we need to improve our ability to communicate? Absolutely," said party chairman Art Torres. "We need to communicate in terms of who we are to both Green Party voters and Independents, to let them to know where we stand on the issues."
The convention, which begins Friday afternoon in San Jose, will focus on re-electing Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer and building a stronger Internet presence, which officials hope will mirror the Dean model. Delegates also will plan their response to Schwarzenegger's no-new-taxes budget proposal, which would make deep cuts in social services, as well as the $15 billion bond measure going before voters in the primary.
Many of the convention speakers are largely relics of another era. They include the recently ousted Davis, as well as Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson and Senate President John Burton, who will both lose their jobs this fall because of term limits.
While 36-year old San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom — one of the party's few new stars — will address the delegates Saturday afternoon, no one projects the sheer force or charisma of Schwarzenegger, who has quickly become the dominant figure in California politics.
Last year's convention attracted a wide range of presidential contenders including Dean and Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards . Flush with victory after sweeping all statewide offices in 2002 and fired up over the impending war in Iraq , delegates hissed and booed Kerry and Edwards for their support of the war resolution, and wildly cheered Dean — then little more than an asterisk in the polls — for his fiery denunciation of the war.
Strategist Garry South said he hopes that this time, newly humbled Democrats will use their convention to think strategically — and be more polite.
"I was ashamed to be a Democrat last year — to see people booing distinguished United States senators who shared 85 percent of their views," said South, Davis' former strategist and now a consultant for Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman 's presidential campaign. "In my humble view, this year they ought to be looking at the field of presidential candidates and figuring out who has the best chance of beating Bush."
With seven weeks to go before the primary, the presidential nomination may be all but decided before California Democrats get to vote. Then again, Dean's rivals are surging in most polls in key primary states, so Democrats here may yet play a decisive role — and indications are that it's Dean's race to lose in California.
A poll out this week by the Public Policy Institute of California showed Dean with 31 percent support among likely voters, and retired General Wesley Clark in second place with 14 percent.
Democrats in California "should be preparing themselves for the fact that they could be decisive on two fundamentally contrasting philosophies — the Dean and the anti-Dean," Cain said. "We may be in a position where if Clark or Edwards become the anti-Dean candidate, we could be one of the states where Dean takes his last stand."