While most Democrats focus either on the next round of presidential debates in early June or on accumulating fundraising numbers by the end of June, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's strategists in California are focused on… January 12, 2008.
On that day, they believe, the first hard evidence will emerge of an idea they hope Americans (or at least Democratic primary voters) will accept: Hillary's victory is inevitable.
It's hard to know whether the Clinton Machine—and it is an impressive machine—is merely methodical or also a little desperate. Probably both.
She is organizing assiduously here, as everywhere, hoping to impress Democrats with the disciplined nature of her bid—as if that, in and of itself, is proof of her suitability to be president.
Her leave-no-stone-unturned attention to detail is characteristic, and understandable.
But it also bespeaks a nagging sense of vulnerability—as if they know that they can't leave anything to chance, lest it all evaporate in a minute.
So they are concentrating on California.
The moved-up primary
Clinton and her allies encouraged state officials, led by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, to move up the date of the California presidential primary. They succeeded.
It is now scheduled for Feb. 5, 2008, part of a Mega-Primary Day that will include, among other states, New York.
That's just the beginning of the story.
As Clinton strategists and other Democrats here explain it, state law will require that absentee ballots be sent to voters by January 8, 2008. Within four days of that, by Jan. 12, tracking polls (by the Clinton campaign and, the campaign hopes, by independent news organizations) will yield the first evidence of who is winning the first actual votes in the '08 race.
And those results will be available BEFORE Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada or South Carolina hold their pivotal primaries and caucuses.
The Clinton campaign's aim is to make sure that the lioness's share of those early votes—an estimated 1.5 million "PABs", or "permanent absentee ballots" —are for Hillary.
The campaign has studied this universe of voters with great care.
They think that most of the earliest of those absentee voters are women, who are the campaign's main demographic target to begin with.
A firewall against Iowa?
The idea is to build a pre-vote firewall against the possibility that someone—like Sen. Barack Obama, or former Sen. John Edwards—will win the caucuses in Iowa.
"There are going to be more absentee voters in California than voters in all of Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada," said Fabian Nunez, assembly speaker and the lead official Democrat for Hillary.
Quietly, other Democrats here scoff at the notion that early votes here next January will mean anything to the national press corps and pundits who write the stories in Iowa and New Hampshire. "If Hillary gets wiped out in Iowa, no one is going to care," one of them told me.
The diligence and attention to detail of the Clinton camp is impressive. They are working hard— Hillary and Bill—to line up supporters here early.
Last summer, Nunez, a hungry young pol from LA who took over as assembly speaker after only one House term, was invited to a dinner with Clinton mega-funders Ron Burkle, Haim Saban and Steve Bing. He was impressed with Hillary's pitch.
Last March, he and other California legislators were wined and dined in Washington—and Nunez endorsed Clinton just before the party's state convention.
Other key endorsements
Obama has not been absent here. He fought hard for Nunez' endorsement.
Though he lost out, he has some key names here, too, among them former gubernatorial candidate Steve Wesley and Democratic majority leaders in the state house and senate.
The big prize, however, is Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has yet to endorse anyone, though he was at that Burkle dinner, too, and is close to Nunez.
No matter who endorses whom, the Clintonistas are studying how to use the internet to, among other things, reach the female, 30 to 65-year-old middle class women they think are the key to showing the earliest possible signs of momentum.
They have studied their internet-usage patterns, and know that these women use email and listserves, not instant messaging or myspace, to communicate.
The key is to get them off the net and to actual meetings or volunteer efforts.
"What we need to do is generate real touches and asks," one strategist told me. If they succeed, you can expect to hear Hillary bragging about it next January.