By Chief White House correspondent and political director
NBC News
updated 5/10/2007 1:51:32 PM ET 2007-05-10T17:51:32

Last week, California scored a mini-coup of sorts by hosting one of the first two presidential debates. Of course, California was given a MAJOR assist in scoring this first debate due to the location of the Ronald Reagan library.

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Californians should bask in that "firstness" for as long as they can because it may be the last time the state is relevant in the primary process.

That’s right, despite Arnold Schwarzenegger’s attempts to make California more relevant in the primary process, it appears as of this writing (barring yet ANOTHER move by the Golden State) that California will be no more influential in picking the next president than it has been the last 20 years.

California strikes fear in every state. Twelve years ago, when then-California Gov. Pete Wilson pushed up the state's primary from June to March, there was a spate of "California will be relevant" coverage.

Well, a few months – and many enacted state primary laws – later, California, once again, found itself at the back of the pack.

And so it appears it is happening again to California.

A Tuesday in February
February 5, a.k.a. "Tsunami Tuesday," is not just going to be anchored by California’s primary. Other big states, like New York, New Jersey, Illinois and possibly Texas, are going to be on the same day.

This guarantees that California will get no more attention than it gets in any other cycle. In fact, arguably because of the cost of talking to California voters, it may get even less since there are so many other states one can concentrate on.

From my perspective, all this frontloading has done only one thing: make Iowa even more important.

As the very first test, the "winner(s)" of the Iowa Caucuses is (are) going to take on greater significance than ever before – particularly since there is no break between Iowa and everything else. Momentum will be the driving force for these candidates post-Iowa, not money or message.

The only chance Iowa and (to a lesser extent) New Hampshire have in becoming less relevant to the process this year is if the two states move up so early that there are a few weeks, rather than just a few days, between them and every other state.

Now I know this thinking is running counter to the evolving conventional wisdom that somehow the Feb. 5 Tsunami Tuesday primary day is going to take on greater significance.

But remember when Super Tuesday was supposed to matter in ’88 or again in ’92 or again in ’00?

The fact is, watch where these candidates travel to once Labor Day rolls around. The frontrunners will be in one of two states – Iowa or New Hampshire… period.

And frankly, the really smart candidates will be living in Iowa.

Because, in the words of that great philosopher – Ricky Bobby (of "Talladega Nights fame") – "if you’re not first, you’re last." 

That’s the way this calendar is shaping up.

Who skipped Iowa?
Until some candidate actually pulls off a "skip Iowa" strategy and gets the nomination, you have to assume that Iowa will still have THE impact on this race.

Al Gore tried to skip Iowa in ’88 (and the media played along in fact) and it failed.

John McCain tried to skip Iowa in ’00 (and the media played along) and it failed.

Wesley Clark skipped Iowa in ’04 (and the media sort of played along) and he flopped.

Only Bill Clinton successfully skipped Iowa and got a nomination but that’s only because EVERYONE skipped Iowa in the Democratic primary that year.

That’s why I’m a bit perplexed by the news this week out of the Giuliani camp that they are thinking about lessening their focus on the early states and instead concentrating on winning the big delegate prizes on Feb. 5 (and possibly Florida on Jan. 29).

The strategy has NEVER worked in the modern era of frontloading. Every cycle, a candidate tries it and gets close but fails.

And, sure, streaks are made to be broken and conventional wisdom is set in order to unmake it, but it is awfully risky.

The real fallacy in this purported Giuliani strategy is that somehow Republican voters in New Jersey or California or Florida are more tolerant of his moderate social views.

Ask moderate Republicans in New Jersey how hard it is to win a statewide GOP primary.

Ask moderate Republicans in California how hard it is to win a statewide GOP primary.

Arnold Schwarzenegger had to backdoor his way into the governorship; he might not have survived the normal primary process.

Then, of course, there is the issue of independent voters and their level of participation in Republican primaries.

Right now, due to the unpopularity of President Bush, it is likely that a greater portion of independent voters (in states where independents can vote in primaries) will choose to vote for the Democratic candidates, if the current polling of independents is to be believed.

This is yet another way of proving that the GOP primary electorates (even in the big states) will be potentially just as conservative as they are in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

As it stands now, expect Iowa to have the greatest impact, winnowing each field to three candidates (at the most).

New Hampshire will be a momentum improver for the frontrunners.

South Carolina will be potentially decisive for Republicans like Giuliani and McCain and Florida on Jan. 29 will be the final test.

Now can a Giuliani come close in Iowa and then start winning everything else and roll from there? Yes, but coming close in Iowa means competing and doing better than expected.

Remember, you can "win" Iowa without winning Iowa. But you can’t skip Iowa and expect to be rewarded down the road.

So while Tsunami Tuesday is a fascinating development, and may ensure the two parties will finally concede the primary system is broken and needs reforming, it will have no more impact on the process than every other Super Tuesday going back to ’88. 

As a political junkie who likes churn, I hope I’m wrong, but recent history indicates otherwise.

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