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Democratic Presidential Candidates Court Early Primary State California


Next week, 14 presidential candidates will descend on San Francisco for the California Democratic Party's annual convention. That will be the biggest gathering of presidential contenders so far. And it's evidence of California's new status as a key primary state. Here's NPR political correspondent Scott Detrow.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has been meeting with a lot of White House hopefuls lately. He recently ate tacos with former Vice President Joe Biden. Garcetti says he comes to these meetings with a lot of questions.

ERIC GARCETTI: Well, I want to see which tacos they order. And if they're able to, you know, get - get tongue or brain tacos, it's very impressive to us, you know, that they're not just going for carne asada.

DETROW: There's a bit of truth to the joke, though. Garcetti is probing candidates on policy as he considers making an endorsement. But he's also trying to get a feel for the candidates' character. Garcetti's opinion matters because he's an influential voice in a suddenly influential primary state.

GARCETTI: Well, you know, we're excited that we matter for more than money. We're the most popular boy or girl at the dance all of a sudden. And everybody is interested in talking to us.

DETROW: That's not usually the case. California's the biggest hall of delegates, sure, but the primary is usually in June, when the nomination is mostly decided already, apart from last-stand efforts, like Hillary Clinton in 2008 or Bernie Sanders in 2016. But next year, California goes early, March 3, along with several other states. Candidates are taking notice and already spending a lot of time there.


KAMALA HARRIS: It's good to be home (laughter).

DETROW: California Senator Kamala Harris held a big rally in Los Angeles last weekend and kicked off her campaign with a speech in Oakland. California is Harris' home turf. But former Senator Barbara Boxer, whose old seat Harris now holds, says that doesn't necessarily make her the favorite.

BARBARA BOXER: People know her better than they know, for example, Amy Klobuchar or Michael Bennet. But if you look at the latest polls, she's not leading those polls. There are others in front of her. So I think it's wide open here. And she's going to have to fight for those votes.

DETROW: So other candidates have been doing a lot of campaigning there too, including former Congressman Beto O'Rourke.


BETO O'ROURKE: Muy buenos dias from Yosemite Valley here in California, where we are announcing the most ambitious climate plan in the history of the United States.

DETROW: Between 60 and 70% of California voters usually cast ballots by mail. Next year, those ballots will be distributed the very same day as the Iowa caucuses. Bernie Sanders' campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, says that puts the Golden State up there with Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada in terms of important early races.

FAIZ SHAKIR: So we are treating it like a early primary state, campaigning there early and often and making a strong play to try to win that state.

DETROW: California is an expensive state to campaign in - so many big, pricey media markets to buy ads in, so many people to reach and organize. That's why many other campaigns worry the only candidates who will be able to compete there will be the ones with high name-recognition and a lot of money - candidates like Biden, Sanders and Harris. But Barbara Boxer says money isn't everything.

BOXER: But it's a very issues-oriented state. It's not a state that just says, oh, I know her name or, I know his name. They're going to want to know what you're fighting for.

DETROW: And it just so happens that many of the top California political issues are the same ones currently motivating Democrats all over the country. Here's Harris at that LA rally.


HARRIS: Separating babies from their parents at the border is not border security. It is a human rights abuse that was committed by the United States government.

DETROW: Immigration, just like climate change, is an issue many California voters are dealing with every day. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti says he wants to hear more about those two topics as well as housing affordability and infrastructure.

GARCETTI: Even though we're not trained, like Iowa or New Hampshire, to know how to kind of interview all the candidates, we're learning that culture of being able to ask people, great, what are you going to do for us specifically here in California? We haven't been in that position for decades.

DETROW: Given how many presidential hopefuls are trekking to San Francisco to make their case to party activists, it's clear the candidates are ready to have those conversations.

Scott Detrow, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.