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Are Republicans Wasting a Valuable Resource?

California political leaders got their way. They wanted our state to wield some clout in deciding who will be the Republican and Democratic nominees for President of the United States in 2008. That just wasn't going to happen if California held its primary election on its usual first Tuesday in March. By that time, a powerhouse of other states would have completed caucuses, straw polls and primaries - and the deed would be done without the Golden State influencing the outcome.

So our politicians changed all that by pushing the presidential primary to February 5th and California is now a major player in the great face-off game in November 2008. OK. Great. Now - what do we do with that power?

Well, let's look at some numbers. Nearly 20 percent of California voters are independents who decline to state a party preference. Clearly, these three million citizens can't bring themselves to identify with either of the major parties. They represent a numerically impressive group whose numbers have almost doubled since Bill Clinton won his second term. So they could have a very large voice in deciding who will be the presidential nominees.

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Here's the quandary if we believe that presidential primaries attract the extreme wings of both parties . It seems that for the last eight years, the state Republican Party has refused to allow independents or anyone who isn't a registered Republican to vote in its presidential primary. That practically guarantees that a conservative candidate will be selected by California's Republicans. Meanwhile, State Democrats welcome independents into their presidential primary which could mean the Democratic choice will lean more centrist than to the left.

But perhaps the most telling result will surface when those independents who want to vote are forced to consider only the Democrats running for President. Once an independent has emotionally committed to a Clinton, an Obama, an Edwards or a Richardson, what chance is there that the independent who supported a Democrat will switch to a Republican in November? Of course, if a popular "independent" ran as a third party candidate such as Ross Perot did in 1992 and 1996, then what happens in the California primary in February might have little relationship to what happens in California in November.

Gloria Penner is KPBS' director of public affairs. She's been covering local, state and national politics in one form or other (radio, TV, and now the Web) for 37 years. Please read our guidelines before posting comments.