Los Angeles — Vote-by-mail ballots go out this week in the nation's most populous state, forcing presidential campaigns to consider using scarce dollars to lure early California voters while contests unfold in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.
More than half the total votes in California's Feb. 5 primary could be mailed in, and many of those ballots will be cast long before Election Day in a state that has seen scant evidence of the 2008 presidential campaign.
California isn't alone. Residents of 11 other states - Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, South Carolina and Utah - have been able to vote by mail for their favorite candidates since December.
The first was Michigan, where absentee ballots were made available Dec. 1 for the Jan. 15 primary.
But California is the biggest prize with the most delegates. With a wide-open race in both parties, results from early contests will carry inevitable weight here as voters make decisions in what amounts to a rolling, monthlong primary election.
Spending on advertising, mail and phone banks - the essential tools of reaching voters - will be tight in California as money is sucked up by earlier contests, where strong finishes could mean the difference between failure and survival. Leading campaigns have yet to run TV ads in the state.
The compressed primary schedule "terribly complicates a campaign's ability to get its message across," said Democratic strategist Garry South, a veteran of Sen. Joe Lieberman's 2004 presidential bid. "Voters in California will be sending ballots back before candidates get here."