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Last Updated: Sunday, 3 February 2008, 15:37 GMT
Candidates vie for bite of 'Big Enchilada'
By Rajesh Mirchandani
BBC News, Los Angeles

Enrique and Maria Lopez
The Lopezes lost their sick daughter and now face losing their home
Los Angeles loves awards shows, and this is awards season.

But presidential candidates have been battling for the biggest prize of all in the primary contest: California.

Democratic rivals Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama debated before a Hollywood audience at the Kodak Theatre, where Oscars are usually handed out.

The Republicans chose the more august surroundings of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, to the north of LA.

Why were their last debates before Super Tuesday's pan-American voting frenzy in California?

Because, as one analyst put it: "California is the Big Enchilada."

California voters give their views ahead of elections to choose US presidential nominees

The state offers candidates far more delegate votes than any other: 370 Democratic and 170 Republican delegates will be allocated on the night.

By way of comparison, some 200 Republican delegates have been allocated in all the party's half-dozen contests so far this year.

It's big, it's important and it knows it.

Property collapse

At Loyola Marymount University in southern LA, first-time voters are thinking hard about which candidates best reflect their views.

One student said the war in Iraq was uppermost in her mind.

"One of the candidates, I think it was Mitt Romney said: 'Do you guys want to be winners?'

"I don't think there's a way to win the war in Iraq. I think we need to leave Iraq as safely as possible," she said.

On the Republican front, the polls shows Governor Romney lagging behind John McCain.

The senator from Arizona has seen his standing grow since coming to California, with valuable endorsements from former front-runner Rudy Giuliani and the state's celebrity Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

And the region's biggest newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, has backed him - the first time since 1972 it has endorsed a presidential candidate.

The paper has also endorsed Democrat Barack Obama, which might seem at odds with polls that put Senator Clinton ahead, but chimes with some of the voices being heard.

At Loyola University a young black student wanted a candidate who would improve America's healthcare system and acknowledged that candidate could be a Clinton.

But she admitted: "For me to be here with a black president, that would be history right there."

Downturn

The biggest single issue in California though is probably the economy.

John McCain
John McCain's immigration reform efforts could be a boon and a bane

The state's real estate boom of the last few years has been followed by one of the biggest housing market collapses in America, with the LA Times reporting foreclosures up by more than 400% in a year.

In Oxnard, Ventura County, north of LA, Enrique and Maria Lopez could soon lose their substantial family home.

They refinanced their house to pay for medical treatment for their daughter, Gabriela, who later died of cancer.

Their grief and the economic downturn cost them their landscaping business, and now collapsing house prices have left them owing more than their home is worth - they could lose that too.

Speaking in Spanish, Maria Lopez said she feels she's losing everything, that her daughter and her home were her dreams.

Her husband Enrique says he will vote for the candidate who can turn around the economy.

"It's very important because when the economy is good I have work," he said. "Last year I had little work. But I think Mr Obama will be good."

Hispanic vote

The Hispanic vote is crucial in California. It has the largest Hispanic population of any state - nearly 36%.

As a voting group, they tend toward the Democrats and Barack Obama has been courting them, using a traditional Spanish slogan - ''si se puede'' (''yes we can'') - on his campaign.

Republican candidates need the Hispanic vote too.

John McCain's border state of Arizona has a large Hispanic population, and he championed the campaign to reform immigration laws.

The move was defeated and it put Senator McCain in the firing line of those on the right of his party, but his efforts may count for something with Hispanic voters.

Emily Ayala
I don't always make money farming, so it's scary sometimes. I don't know if we'll be able to keep the farm in 15 or 50 years
Emily Ayala

South from Ventura is the peaceful Ojai Valley, famous for New Age hippies and fruit farms.

California's agricultural sector is America's largest, worth more than $30bn (15bn) a year.

Here I met Emily Ayala, overseeing her Mexican workers on the picturesque citrus farm her family has run for more than 100 years.

Among the tangerine trees, with her young son Oliver nestled in a baby sling, she said there were threats to her way of life - the rising costs of energy and water; immigration crackdowns that mean labour is harder to find and more expensive; and foreign competitors.

"I don't always make money farming... so it's scary sometimes. I don't know if Oliver will be able to grow up like I have, if we'll be able to keep the farm in 15 or 50 years," she said.

'End Washington's wastefulness'

Her father, Tony Thacher, argued that even the war in Iraq was an economic issue, that the billions spent there each week could be put to better use at home.

He is looking for a candidate who will, as he put it, "end the wastefulness within the Washington loop".

It is an argument that chimes with what several of the main candidates say, particularly leading Republicans John McCain and Mitt Romney.

But Mr Thacher is quick to point out that he "unlike many farmers around here, [is] not a Republican".

But in this election race, people's traditional voting patterns are no predictor of who they will choose, come Tuesday, or come November.

In California, at least, the candidate who can show they understand the importance of the economy may be the one who will carry the day.

VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
Californian voters give their views on the election race



Select from the list below to view state level results.

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