CA voters could be players in GOP race for the White House

VotedThe easiest way to tell whether you’re in California or New Hampshire is to walk into a coffee shop. If you don’t see a presidential candidate, you’re in California.

Our state’s presidential primary in June usually takes place in what the NBA calls “garbage time,” that final few minutes of play after the outcome is beyond any doubt.

But 2016 could be different.

On Wednesday, 15 Republican candidates for president were at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library for two televised debates. An astounding 23 million people watched the CNN telecast, making it the No. 10 cable TV show of all time, behind eight college football games on ESPN and the GOP debate last month on Fox.

CNN’s previous ratings record for a presidential debate was set on Jan. 31, 2008, when an average of 8.3 million viewers tuned in. On Wednesday, even the early debate for four low-polling candidates drew an audience of over 6 million people.

The reason for the skyscraping ratings, of course, is Donald Trump. “Will they send me flowers?” he tweeted on Thursday.

“Trump deserves a lot of credit” for drawing tens of millions of viewers to the debates, said Shawn Steel, who represents California on the Republican National Committee. “Some candidates would give up organs for coverage like that.”

California’s primary could be actively contested, Steel believes, if four or five candidates are still in the race at the beginning of April.

“Eighty percent of the delegates will have made up their mind after March,” he said. But he predicted that as long as the debates continue to have “the JV table,” candidates are likely to stay in the race for the TV coverage. The RNC scheduled a total of nine debates, spaced about a month apart. The next one is Oct. 28 in Boulder, Colo.

A year ago, a prediction that the Republican presidential debates were going to break TV rating records would have won you the Brian Williams Award for Outstanding Achievement in Fantasy.

“Trump has brought a whole new dynamic to the Republican brand,” Steel said, by attracting alienated voters, independents and Democrats.

“His poll numbers in the African-American community are better than any Republican’s in the past 50, maybe 70 years,” Steel said. “And in the Latino community, where you might expect that he’d be polling at 5 percent, he’s at 25 percent. That’s Gallup. It’s quite a shocker.”

Steel said it’s evidence of illegal immigration’s “impact on working folks,” including Latinos who are legal immigrants. “You can’t dismiss it,” he said.

At a Kiwanis Club meeting in West Hills Thursday morning, the usual ban on political talk was lifted for a discussion of the debates. Republican Doris Panza said Trump would not be her choice for president, but she thinks he is saying what people have been itching to hear, and what everyone else is afraid to say. Panza, whose husband served in the military for 38 years, liked what Sen. Lindsey Graham said about fighting ISIS. “I think he’s right that if we don’t fight them there, they’ll be over here,” she said.

Janet Lucan, a Democrat, said she liked the way Carly Fiorina “put Trump in his place” and was impressed with her as a person. She said she likes Jeb Bush and, to her surprise, she liked what Rand Paul had to say.

Ron Guilbert described himself lightheartedly as a “far right-wing Republican” and said he would vote for Marco Rubio if the election were held today.

At a Constitution Day event Thursday at Pierce College, associate professor of political science Anthony Gabrielli also gave high marks to Rubio.

“I think he had the strongest performance of the ‘insiders,’” he said, “and Carly Fiorina was the strongest of the ‘outsiders.’”

California Republican Party Chairman Jim Brulte said during a break between the debates Wednesday that the GOP candidates are “head and shoulders above what the Democrats have to offer.” Steel called the field the “finest quality candidates in our lifetime.“

They’re getting a good long look from the voters, courtesy of Donald Trump. According to Nielsen data, millions of people who never watched a presidential debate before are watching now.

Could California’s political landscape be affected if new voters register in the Republican Party to cast a vote for Trump, Rubio, Fiorina or another candidate in the GOP primary?

A year ago, a prediction that a New York real estate developer would rebuild the California Republican Party would have won you another Brian Williams Award.

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