With a southern wind at his back, Barack Obama is surging in California. Nine days from the primary, Obama California is waging day-to-day skirmishes to take the lead from Hillary Clinton, who has so far prevailed in this state but is slowly losing ground. Over the weekend and through Monday, the Obama grassroots has been on the offensive. All day Saturday, long before the polls closed in South Carolina, Obama California held a statewide phone bank in thirteen field offices with a goal of 100,000 calls and a place in the Guinness Book of Records. Not only did volunteers make 220,000 calls but also they targeted the "decline to state" voters, who in California can participate in the Democratic Primary.
By Sunday, the Obama Campaign was holding a conference call with the press to announce the California Truth Squad, which will be quick "to respond to misleading negative attacks from the Clinton Campaign." Unless the Clintons harbor a political death wish, likely they have already set a new course, with a new tone--same as they did after Iowa. Therefore, the California Truth Squad may never muster; nevertheless, the nine pols, led by Congresswoman Barbara Lee, are ready--just as the Obama Campaign, stung, and perceiving, rightly or wrongly, that they were the object of dirty tricks at the Nevada caucuses, sent out the call nationwide for lawyers to come to South Carolina to monitor the voting. On Sunday, the San Francisco Chronicle endorsed Obama and thereby brought to twenty the senator's endorsements from California newspapers (to date, Clinton and Edwards have one endorsement each). Yet more evidence that the Clintons' and their surrogates' misstatements and insinuations about Obama have backfired is this reasoning from the Chronicle editorial board in making their decision: "Especially in recent days, her [Clinton's] campaign has shown the sharp elbows that evoke the ugly underside of the Clinton years. . . ."
Now more California politicians are jumping on the Barack Express. Also Sunday, Xavier Becerra, the ranking Latino in the House of Representatives and assistant to Nancy Pelosi, announced his endorsement of Obama. Suddenly, California Latinos are coming out of the woodwork. Just before the South Carolina primary, state senate majority leader Gloria Romero was made a national co-chair of the campaign. By Monday noon, Joe Coto (chair of the CA Latino Caucus), Nicole Parra, Gilbert Cedillo and Dean Florez--all state legislators--were standing with Romero on the steps of the state Capitol in Sacramento to speak out, in both English and Spanish (Univision was rolling the camera), in a press conference for Obama. Why these folks didn't start campaigning last fall is the big question, but one drowned out by the bigger endorsements of the day from Ted Kennedy, his niece Caroline and Toni Morrison. Topping this good news--if such a thing is possible nine days out from primary--is the four million dollars the Obama Campaign raised online over the weekend.
Saturday through Monday, between press conference calls on subjects ranging from Latino Outreach to economics, I traveled from one Obama event to another, trying to get a sense of where, after South Carolina, his campaign stands in California. On the one hand, despite all the good news, the task is daunting. So many voters here just are not that familiar with Barack Obama and certainly have never taken his measure in person. Some Californians--but only a fraction, given the state's population--will get a chance to see him at several events, yet to be determined, when he comes for the Democratic Debate three days from now in Los Angeles. A campaign fundraiser Sunday night brought home to me how little people here know about Obama. This was a gathering of well-heeled Berkeley intelligentsia, a $1000 a person soiree which the hostess thought might bring out fifty people. At least 150 professors, scientists, writers and artists crammed a South Berkeley brown shingle house to hear Tobias Wolff, Michael Chabon, Dave Eggers and Daniel Handler testify to their Obamic conversions. In conversation with attendees, however, I was surprised how little many of them knew about the Obama Campaign so far and more importantly about Obama himself. If Berkeley's best-educated haven't had the time or the inclination to acquaint themselves with the facts, what about the rest of California? This is and always has been the disadvantage for Barack Obama: his opponent is so much better known than he.
On the other hand, many Californians, piqued by Obama's successes in Iowa and South Carolina as well as the slew of new and glittering endorsements, are--to use one of the campaign's favorite epithets--low-hanging fruit. Some of these may have been turned off by the Clintons' tactics of late; some may have heard either the Iowa or South Carolina victory speech. I don't know the backstory of the lady who paused at the foot of the north steps of the Capitol Monday as the Obama press conference was setting up. She was walking her little black poodle, and since I like dogs, I fell into conversation with her. She asked me what was going on; after I explained, she asked me a few things about Obama. The press conference was running behind, and eventually I turned away to talk with some of the other reporters. Fifteen minutes later, the event began with a group portrait (good for a few seconds in the evening news) of Obama supporters, legislators and locals alike, on the steps. In the group, cradling Jasper (poodle) in one arm and an Obama placard in the other, stood the dogwalker. If enough Obama Californians reach out to neighbors and colleagues--and the random dogwalker--the senator can come close to winning here. Such proselytizing is easier said than done; it really is Jehovah's Witness kind of work. It's hard to picture the crowd at the South Berkeley fundraiser approaching peers at the university and the think tank, Novartis and Pixar, the tennis club and the produce market. But that's what it's going to take.
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