California at center of historic Super Tuesday election |

California at center of historic Super Tuesday election

Juliet Williams, Associated Press Writer
Photo illustration by Jonah M. KesselSens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

LOS ANGELES (AP) ” California drew the eyes of the nation tonight as the most populous state wielded its influence in the presidential nominating process for the first time in decades.

In hotly contested races for both parties, Democrat Hillary Rhodium Clinton had a slight lead over Barack Obama, while John McCain pulled ahead of Mitt Romney in very early returns.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, voting in Brentwood with his wife, Maria Shriver, called California Super Tuesday’s “golden prize.”

“When it comes to choosing a presidential candidate, for decades California wasn’t important. Now it is,” said the governor, who with the Legislature moved the state’s presidential primary up from June to February.

Adding to the Election Day drama, a rich trove of California delegates was at stake ” 370 for Democrats and 170 for Republicans ” while races in primaries and caucuses were being determined simultaneously in 24 states.

Californians were also voting Tuesday on several statewide propositions, including one that would modify legislative term limits and another that would allow a major expansion of Indian gambling for four Southern California tribes.

Still, it was the presidential race that attracted almost all the attention.

With so much at stake, campaigns for all the major candidates pushed hard in California right through today.

McCain rearranged his schedule to campaign in San Diego on Tuesday and Romney added a stop in the state Monday night. Obama’s campaign placed automated telephone calls to 500,000 people ” with Stevie Wonder singing, “I just called to say I love you, and please vote for my friend Barack Obama.”

Voter registration hit a record for a presidential primary in California, at 15.7 million voters, or about 68.5 percent of those eligible. About half of all ballots were expected to be absentee.

A high number of mail-in ballots was expected to come in at the last minute, contributing to what registrars said would be a late vote count. Election officials predicted that 20 percent or more of the ballots would remain uncounted on Election Night.

Secretary of State Debra Bowen reported some complaints from nonpartisan voters who had trouble Tuesday casting presidential primary ballots. The Democratic and American Independent parties allowed voters who aren’t affiliated with any political party to vote in their contests, but those people had to request a special ballot. The state’s Republican primary was closed to voters not registered with the GOP.

Some registrars reported increased requests from nonpartisan voters seeking to cast votes in the tight Democratic race between Obama and Clinton.

In early exit polls, Democrats and Republicans reported the economy was the most important issue facing the country, with about 90 percent of Democrats characterizing it as not so good or poor; about two-thirds of Republicans said the same.

Reflecting the tossup races for both parties, about a quarter of voters in each primary said they had chosen their candidate in the final three days before the election.

Clinton, who saw her double-digit lead over Obama evaporate in the final days before the election, sent her husband, former President Bill Clinton, to campaign at black churches and at rallies throughout the state.

He had to contend with the celebrity power of talk show host Oprah Winfrey, who energized 9,000 people during a weekend rally in Los Angeles for Obama. Shriver also endorsed the Illinois senator, whose campaign resonated with Californians who believe Washington needs an overhaul.

“I hadn’t voted since Jimmy Carter. For the first time in my lifetime, I found someone to vote for ” rather than just voting against someone,” said Hank Hardin, a 61-year-old independent and Vietnam veteran from Brentwood who voted for Obama.

Meanwhile, a measure that sought to modify term limits for state legislators by cutting two years off the maximum time lawmakers could serve, had a slight lead with just 2 percent of precincts reporting. That measure, Proposition 93, drew strong criticism because it would allow 34 lawmakers who otherwise would be termed out of the Assembly or Senate this year to stay in office for another four or six years.

Measures seeking approval for the governor’s deals to let four Indian tribes add up to 17,000 slot machines to their casinos were leading in the polls and in early returns. Propositions 94-97 attracted more than $130 million in spending, most of it for advertisements by the tribes and their allies.

Voters also were deciding with Proposition 92 whether to dedicate a certain amount of money each year to the nation’s largest community college system and reduce course fees to $15 per unit from the current $20. But the measure comes as the state faces a $14.5 billion budget deficit.

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