Tuesday predictions only tentative

In a year that's defied conventional political thinking, there are still few certainties going into Tuesday's "super duper" presidential primary, in which voters in California, New York, Illinois, New Jersey and several other big prize states will cast their ballots.

The Republican and Democratic races have slightly clarified in the past week with the withdrawals of John Edwards and Rudy Giuliani.

But soothsaying on how those moves will play out in the state or the Northern San Joaquin Valley is still risky business.

"This is not a year in which you want to make a lot of bold predictions," said Phil Trounstine, director of the Survey & Policy Research Institute at San Jose State University.

California and the Central Valley, Trounstine said, are too complex for an expert to handicap with much confidence, especially this year.

Still, the tea leaves do suggest a few likelihoods.

One is that, regardless of who wins, everyone will get a little something out of California. Both parties apportion at least some of their delegates here to winners in the state's congressional districts.

So, Republicans in Democrat Nancy Pelosi's San Francisco district count just as much for delegates as those in Orange County districts.

It's slightly different with Democrats, because not all districts have the same number of delegates, and there's a cache of delegates for whoever wins the statewide vote.

Because of that, don't count on either Sen. Barack Obama or Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton being able to claim a commanding lead for the Democratic nomination after Tuesday.

And don't count on Clinton winning California, either. Though she's had a sizable lead in recent polls, some, like Trounstine, believe Obama can close the gap if he makes gains with Latinos, women and working-class Democrats.

No Republican or Democratic candidate can capture enough delegates Tuesday to clinch the nomination. But for the Republicans, Sen. John McCain could gain unstoppable momentum toward the nomination if he wins several states.

For that to happen, McCain needs a good showing in California. But because the state's Republican voters tend to be more conservative in a primary than those who vote in a general election, the Arizona senator may struggle among conservatives skeptical of his stances on such topics as waterboarding and illegal immigration.

Valley voters are more conservative than California as a whole. But Trounstine said it's folly to say they'll oppose McCain.

Because the region is still agriculturally based, many otherwise conservative voters believe that immigrant labor -- including illegal immigrants -- is necessary.

And voters who hoped to cast a ballot for Giuliani may be swayed to vote for McCain instead, based on the former New York City mayor's endorsement.

But even if the Republican race is beginning to come into focus, there's still a problem that may haunt the GOP into November: a lack of enthusiasm for the candidates.

The shifting sands of public opinion have, at various times, made McCain, Mitt Romney, Giuliani, Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson front-runners, but also dropped them back. The pattern suggests none of the candidates resonates with the party faithful.

Trounstine said there's a split between Republican conservatives and moderates. To put it another way, the party can't decide between sticking with the Ronald Reagan philosophy or breaking with it.

Which is why Patty Hughes, a Democratic Party leader in Stanislaus County, said the feeling is that come November, it's her party's election to lose.

"It's not a Republican year," said Hughes, who, as the liaison to the candidates from the Stanislaus County Democratic Central Committee, can't say whom she's backing.

She pointed out that Democratic registration numbers are drawing closer to Republicans in the county. And regardless of the candidate they're backing, she said, Democrats seem ready to support the party in the general election.

Regardless of where the momentum swings in the next few days, it's possible that California's political die is already cast.

With as many as half of all California voters casting ballots doing so by mail, the state's judgment on the candidates may have already been rendered -- but not counted until tomorrow night.

Bee staff writer Ben van der Meer can be reached at bvandermeer@modbee.com or 578-2331.