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California Hosts First Formal Presidential Debate

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Tonight California receives a sign of its enlarged role in the presidential nominating process. The most populous state used to hold its primary at the end of the voting season, by which time party nominees were often decided. In 2020, California votes earlier. And today Los Angeles, Calif., will host a Democratic presidential debate. Seven candidates will be onstage.

Here's Scott Shafer from our member station KQED.

SCOTT SHAFER, BYLINE: Two years ago, frustrated by always being in the shadow of Iowa and New Hampshire, California State Senator Ricardo Lara introduced a bill to move up the state's presidential primary from June to March.

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RICARDO LARA: The Prime Time Primary bill would make us one of the first states to hold a presidential primary and ensure our state's voters are heard on the national stage.

SHAFER: The bill passed with bipartisan support and was signed into law. For decades, California has gone back and forth between holding its presidential primary in March and June with mixed results.

KIM ALEXANDER: We are 1 in 8 voters in the country, so we do want California to have a say.

SHAFER: Kim Alexander is president of the California Voter Foundation, a strong supporter of changing the primary date. She says it's now or never to have an impact, given that California isn't one of the few swing states in November.

ALEXANDER: If we want Californians to have a voice in deciding who the president is, we really have to focus on the primary.

SHAFER: California is sensitive to being a political ATM, where Democrats and Republicans come to withdraw campaign cash then fly off to campaign in swing states. Perhaps due to next year's earlier primary, the candidates combined have visited the state hundreds of times for public events and private fundraisers, mostly in LA and San Francisco.

But Aimee Allison, president of She the People, says embrace it. Campaign donations are perhaps the most important way California can influence the Democratic nomination.

AIMEE ALLISON: Without California, there would be no surge in fundraising and visibility for Pete Buttigieg, for example, because a lot of his money and force behind his campaign is really coming from both Silicon Valley and from Hollywood.

SHAFER: As founder of a group which aims to elevate issues important to women of color, Allison says one aspect of life here stands out for needing more attention.

ALLISON: We Californians, we can't afford the rising costs of not only just buying a house but rent. And gentrification has reshaped and shaped our cities. We really need to address that issue not just on the state level, but we need leadership at the federal level.

SHAFER: Encouraging candidates to address issues with special resonance in California was another reason for moving up the presidential primary. Kim Alexander, for one, wants to hear more discussion about a unique cause of homelessness in California.

ALEXANDER: You know, how they're going to address the climate crisis, how they're going to address climate refugees, which we have right here in California every time there's a wildfire.

SHAFER: California has become a favorite target of President Trump, who tweeted that the state was a disgrace to the country. But former Governor Jerry Brown thinks there's a policy blueprint for Democrats in the things California has gotten done.

JERRY BROWN: A $15 minimum wage, that's pretty good. We're implementing family leave, a cap and trade program to put a price on carbon - there's a lot of good things. And of course, California has some of the same problems.

SHAFER: Aimee Allison of She the People notes that while California's formal election isn't until March 3...

ALLISON: Most of us Californians who are registered to vote by mail will receive our ballots February 2. In fact, when the nation's media is focused on Iowa, we're already going to be voting.

SHAFER: Between now and then, the candidates will also be vying to win key California endorsements up for grabs since Kamala Harris' departure two weeks ago.

For NPR News, I'm Scott Shafer in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.