LOS ANGELES -- Between fund-raisers in California with major Democratic donors on Tuesday, White House hopeful Sen. Barack Obama staged an outdoor rally at a park in the Crenshaw district, a humble neighborhood of homes and strip malls that's a contrast to the glitter and wealth of Beverly Hills.
The rally served several strategies:
• It was the only photo-op of the day to catch Obama. News photographers were banned from his star-filled Beverly Hills fund-raiser Tuesday night, so there were no image- management issues stemming from pictures of Obama hanging with celebrities and not "real people."
• And with a new 2008 presidential primary calendar shaping up that puts California in play, it was only prudent for Obama to start laying the groundwork for a Feb. 5 vote in a delegate-rich state. Watching the Illinois Democrat at the rally were five of the 15 members of the Los Angeles City Council whose backing Obama would welcome.
A new national primary is taking form that favors the leading candidates: Obama, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.
The lead-off presidential vote states -- Iowa, Jan. 14; Nevada, Jan. 19; New Hampshire, Jan. 21, and South Carolina, Jan. 29 -- will play a crucial role. But there won't be a chance to regroup from a big loss. It also will be harder for a sleeper candidacy to overtake a front-runner.
Nevada is a factor for the first time; before this, western states had no influence in choosing a nominee. With Nevada and South Carolina firmly entrenched in the 2008 cycle, the first cut will come from a more ethnically and geographically diverse voting pool than the more homogenous populations in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Voters in the Big Four might well meet all the candidates and even chat with them before deciding whom to back. It will be different in the bigger states, where wholesale politics will reign.
California is poised to move its June primary to Feb. 5. Illinois is ready to move the March primary to Feb. 5. A first-Tuesday lineup of Feb. 5 states also could include Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Texas.
With a front-loaded schedule, expensive media-driven politics will dominate in the mega-states, a vast contrast to stumping at cozy house parties and dinners. It also means a nominee could effectively be chosen by this time next year.
Nick Baldick, a senior adviser for Edwards, told me that the new calendar makes the first four primaries "exponentially more important." If a candidate comes out of January with no better than a win in two of the states, he said, "you will have no momentum going into Feb. 5. . . . And no amount of money, no matter how fantastic a candidate" will be able to make it up.
Most of the states moving to Feb. 5 are doing it to get some attention in a process where they would otherwise be ignored. Illinois, playing a crucial role of closer in past cycles with the mid-March primary, is shifting in order to give Obama an easy win in a big state.
David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist, also sees no way for a contender to leapfrog past the January dates.
"I still think that the early states will have great influence on what happens after that," he told me. Even with money -- and Obama and Clinton will have the most -- Axelrod said. "California is such a vast state that it's even, no matter how much money campaigns have, I don't believe that those campaigns will be determined on who can spend a lot of money here. I think those campaigns will be influenced by what happens in the contests prior to it."
With what will be for all practical matters a national primary, Axelrod said, "I think it could potentially close the process more quickly. If someone put a series of wins together, it could well have the effect of a kind of a prairie fire that can't be stopped."
Even if a second-tier Democratic contender wins one of the January contests, without money or infrastructure lined up in the Feb. 5 states, leveraging a victory will be difficult.
For someone like long-shot Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), that's a problem he should be so lucky to have. Said Biden spokesman Larry Rasky, "We are so focused on Iowa, Nevada, South Carolina and New Hampshire, I haven't been able to think about anything beyond the first four states."