The most trenchant symbol of the California presidential primary can be found on an isolated stretch of Interstate 15, smack in the middle of the Mojave Desert. There, affixed to an old trailer, is possibly the largest candidate billboard in the entire state, and it is for the Republican fringe candidate, Ron Paul.
Voters here, engaged by the foreclosure problem and fearing a recession, are ready to lay eyes on candidates, or at least see their faces on television. The goal of the state Legislature in moving California’s primaries to Tuesday was to end the endless practice of candidates bivouacking into Los Angeles and San Francisco for money or debates, skirting the cities that rest in the hills and valleys beyond.
“They have no presence here,” said Marty Steinbrugger, a material salesman here, as he shivered against the backdrop of the San Bernardino Mountains. “I read about the campaign on the Internet.”
Along the main street here, in the guitar store, the printing shop, in line at the bank, everyone had an idea about what is wrong with the health care system, knew someone who had lost a home to high interest rates, and had a notion about who the right person is to address the wobbling economy.
“I feel more motivated than ever to vote,” said Daniel Hodge, 22, a truck driver from Loma Linda, five miles west of here in what is majestically referred to as the Inland Empire. “I feel like Obama is speaking directly to me.”
Since the 1968 primaries — won by Robert F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon — California has been viewed by presidential aspirants as a microcosm of the country. From economic issues to trends in health care, immigration, urban infrastructure and education, the state has proved to be a great incubator for prescriptive policy and a test of the political winds.
This year, with two other large states on Tuesday ostensibly spoken for by hometown favorites — Illinois for Senator Barack Obama and New York for Senator Hillary Rodham — California looms even larger for the Democrats.
Like an inaccessible love interest
The presidential candidates know the state, flush with delegates, cannot be easily discarded. But the vastness of California, the high cost of advertising here — a statewide television buy can run over $2 million for a week — and the sheer impossibility of traversing its myriad Congressional districts in a day, even with the help of chartered aircraft, have forced the candidates to keep their distance from here.
For those who would be president, California is like an inaccessible love interest, stared at from across the country with both longing and frustration, its suitors aggrieved by their fumbling inability to connect.
The candidates cannot find Mr. Hodge in a pancake house, à la New Hampshire, and an evening at a house party in Loma Linda means precious time outside of nearly two dozen other states which are smaller, cheaper and closer to others voting Tuesday. It requires creativity.
On the Democratic side, Mr. Obama has cultivated some 700 microgroups in the state (how’s it going, cat lovers for Obama?) and scores of weekend phone banks and neighborhood canvas volunteers.
His campaign recently held a series of small economic forums. At one of them in downtown Los Angeles, Damian Holguin listened intently.
“I decided to become a citizen because I want to be active in the election of this president,” said Mr. Holguin, a waiter who is a registered Republican.
Mrs. Clinton has focused on Hispanic voters both with personal appearances, and with things like a “Bring Your Own Phone” party in San Diego — in which volunteers bring cellphones and make calls to potential supporters. Republicans have tried to focus all of their energies in getting local elected officials in friendly Congressional districts to do their heavy lifting, and limit their visits to areas where they can cram the most voters into a room.
“It is much more cost-effective to communicate to 8,000 voters than 75,000,” said Hector Barajas, a spokesman for the California Republican Party.
But unearthing the truth about the state’s political contours is as complex and multifaceted as its physical geography. Just as presidential candidates are often as close to a snow-capped mountain as an incoming Pacific wave, they are almost always equidistant from a pious environmentalist on his way to lunch at the Ivy and a young mother who says Christian values are the most important thing a candidate can possess.
“Some parts of San Francisco make California look bad because they are all about saving every spider or whatever,” said Jim Hosp, a Republican who is 48, over a plate of eggs in Napa. “But as far as California goes, we pretty much all get along.”
This is the state where one lawmaker tried to legislate against spanking last year, while another group tried to eliminate domestic partners rights, and where Republicans often “out-green” Democrats, who in turn can be just as tax adverse as Republicans.
‘It is so diverse here’
“I think America thinks people in California just sit at the beach,” said Jayne Bieber, who works as a studio executive in Los Angeles and supports Mrs. Clinton. “But it is so diverse here. I am above middle class, but I am concerned about jobs, I am concerned about the value of the dollar, I am concerned about the value of my 401(k) and my entire financial future. I am a single parent, so it’s schools and my nanny and everything else. I make a lot of money, but when I get my check I feel overtaxed.”
Though it is hard to predict, campaigns in both parties have come to the conclusion that working-class voters may be a key to victory on Tuesday.
“In this case it is a very similar constituency,” said Don Sipple, a Republican strategist who worked on the election of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. “You don’t go to corporate chieftains here, you go to rank-and-file Republicans, and there are a ton of them who are hurting.”
In Moreno Valley, here in the county just east of Los Angeles, home foreclosures are as common as sun-soaked afternoons.
“I think the Republicans need to talk about the middle class more,” Trish Hildebrandt said. “Because they are the majority of people who are voting here now.”
In interviews with Democrats and Republicans and those who are unaffiliated with a party, the state of the economy — specifically the rising costs of gas and food, and the high rate of home foreclosures — trumped nearly every other issue.
“The thing that so depresses me is that when I was turning 30 I had more money in the bank than now when I’m approaching 40,” said Cary Dillow, a salesman in Redlands who like many of the Republicans interviewed was far less settled on his candidate than the Democrats were.
“I make a really good living, and I’m still living paycheck to paycheck,” he said over coffee at Starbucks. “You can’t overstate the effect of spending $80 to fill up your car. You add these coffees at $5 twice a day, and it all adds up.”
GOP rules send candidates to smaller districts
Because of the way the Republican Party here counts delegates — each Congressional district is worth three delegates to its winner no matter how many Republicans reside there — the Republican candidates have chosen at times to bat their eyes at small, manageable spots on the map that in a general election would almost certainly spurn them.
Moderate Republicans have their best shot near the coast, while those who are more conservative can find succor deeper in the state, where Republicans have more in common with red-state denizens than their own party mates here.
Mitt Romney has been focused intensely on the 25th Congressional District, which stretches across Los Angeles and San Bernardino Counties, where Representative Howard P. McKeon, a Republican, oversees the show.
“It’s almost like running mini-Congressional campaigns,” said Kevin Madden, a spokesman for the Romney campaign. “You find a district where the local congressman supports you, and it is very advantageous.”