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How California Is Helping Shape The 2020 Presidential Race

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Fourteen Democratic presidential candidates will campaign in the same state this weekend - not Iowa or New Hampshire, but California. The state moved its primary to early March, and starting tomorrow, California Democrats will gather at their party's convention in San Francisco. California has long set the policy agenda for other blue states, and as Capital Public Radio's Ben Adler reports, it's helping to shape the presidential race, too.

BEN ADLER, BYLINE: Sanctuary state, cap and trade, health care for children living in the state illegally - that's just a partial list of what California has done over the past few years. And here's some of what the state's new governor, Gavin Newsom, called for in his State of the State address.

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GAVIN NEWSOM: While we pursue the long-term goal of single-payer financing, let us make a down payment now by expanding MediCal coverage for Californians up to the age of 26, regardless of their immigration status. Get me a good package on rent stability this year, and I will sign it.

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NEWSOM: Major initiatives like paid sick leave, universal preschool, free community college.

ADLER: If some of those ideas sound familiar, perhaps it's because you've heard Democrats talk about them in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail. Take, for example, California's own senator, Kamala Harris, at her January kickoff rally in Oakland.

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KAMALA HARRIS: ...That health care is a fundamental right, and we will deliver that right with "Medicare for All."

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ADLER: California Democrats make no apologies for pushing the envelope. In an interview with Capital Public Radio earlier this spring, Governor Newsom said he's proud his state is holding its own.

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NEWSOM: We're substituting, I think, for leadership at a time when we have a president who's abdicated leadership. He's going in a completely different direction than this state.

ADLER: Some proposals that started in California have spread to the rest of the country, especially environmental policies; others, like the push for universal health care and the state's employment laws, have not.

ALLAN ZAREMBERG: People throughout the country don't always say California's a trendsetter; they say those people in California are a little crazy with some of their ideas.

ADLER: California Chamber of Commerce President Allan Zaremberg calls his state the test tube for the rest of the nation. He says California's policies are costing residents more in the short term, and it's not yet clear which ones, if any, will pay for themselves down the road.

ZAREMBERG: I wouldn't say California's adopted the Green New Deal, but I would say California's adopted elements of it. And certainly, in some cases, the benefits are worth the cost, but we have to make sure that, in all cases, the benefits equal the cost.

ADLER: Republicans argue California's blue-state agenda will help them paint Democrats as extreme. Here's California GOP chairwoman Jessica Patterson.

JESSICA PATTERSON: You're going to see candidates that are pushed further and further to an agenda that is not consistent with even California, I believe, but the overall country.

ADLER: But Dana Williamson, a top aide to former Democratic governor Jerry Brown disagrees.

DANA WILLIAMSON: I don't think that California's necessarily pushing any of the candidates to the left; I think the issues that we've been talking about for a long time are issues that are now resonating in other parts of the country, and so they're talking about it more.

ADLER: Williamson thinks most voters will search for their own balance between policy views and electability.

WILLIAMSON: Because you can support somebody who's got no support, and you're going to end up with Donald Trump in office, and I don't think anybody wants that.

ADLER: Most of the Democratic field will speak at this weekend's California Democratic Party convention, but there is a conspicuous absence - former Vice President Joe Biden, who's been skipping state party events like this one, plans to campaign in Ohio.

For NPR News, I'm Ben Adler in Sacramento.

(SOUNDBITE OF A REMINISCENT DRIVE'S "AMBROSIA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.