Super Tuesday's Biggest Prize ; the Golden State's Choice for President Next Week May Best Reflect the Feelings of the Nation as a Whole

Article excerpt

When Sen. John McCain finished a campaign stop in this mid-size farm town earlier this week, his cheering supporters picked a homegrown way to say thanks: a crate of freshly picked asparagus.

It lent credence to how one man donning a rain-soaked cowboy hat characterized California's vast geographic midsection. "It's really pretty old-fashioned country," he said.

While that may not fit the Golden State stereotype, in political terms, it's right on the mark, not only for the Central Valley, but for the state as a whole.

California is, in a political sense, more mainstream than maverick. And it's so big that it will offer the nation its first broad-based glimpse of whom Americans want for president when it votes in next week's cavalcade of Super Tuesday primaries.

Put simply, "this state has become a political microcosm for the nation," says Mark Baldassare, author of "California in the New Millennium." And because the state has such a variety of constituencies, "winning here is more indicative of how a candidate will do nationally than anywhere else."

The March 7 primaries occur in so many states that they are being billed as something of a national plebiscite. But given the likelihood of split results from state to state, many analysts are drawing a bead on California as the place where voters' presidential preferences will be most indicative of the national sentiment.

"If you squeezed the nation into a composite, it would look like California," says John Culver, a political scientist at California Polytechnic State University, in San Luis Obispo.

Much of California's ability to mirror the nation politically derives from sheer size. The state's population of 34 million exceeds that of the other major states that have already held primaries - New Hampshire, South Carolina, Michigan, Virginia, and Washington - combined.

Similarly, the breadth of political constituencies in this state, which boasts five distinct and large geographic population centers, also makes it representative.

McCain's trip down the agricultural spine of the state this week threw a spotlight on an often overlooked constituency. The most productive agricultural region in the nation, California's Central Valley is a region of rising immigrants, bedrock conservatism, and expanding suburbanization.

Those features make it ripe for the kind of moderate- conservative swing voter vital to McCain's success, and reflective of the constituency both parties will need to secure victory in November.

Although Los Angeles and San Francisco are the windows through which the nation frames its image of California, their share of the state's population is actually declining. More and more people are living in the Central Valley and the regions south and east of L. …