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Obama Campaign Pursues California Delegates

03/28/2008 02:48 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

There are three different answers to the question Can Obama Win California, and all of them are true. If there were world enough and time, Barack Obama would win over the majority of Democrats in California, just as he did in Iowa. And that's truth number one. But Obama spent a year talking to Iowa. And even then many people didn't make up their minds until New Year's Day, when they mapped out a junket to hear Clinton, Edwards and Obama all in an afternoon. California is too big, however, for such outings; many voters here will never have a chance to hear Barack Obama in person--and frankly, that's what it takes for many. I overheard two women coming out of a rally in Knoxville, Iowa. One lady said to the other, "You see?" Her friend replied, "I'm smitten." But ten days between South Carolina and Super Tuesday isn't enough for wooing California, even if it were the only state going to the polls on February 5. In a recent conference call with reporters, Governor Janet Napolitano of Arizona, who is endorsing Obama, took a question from The Washington Post: Is there still time for Barack Obama to make his case? She replied, "It's the laws of physics." That's what some in the Obama California grassroots have been worried about since last summer.

Therefore, by the morning of February 6, AP and CNN all-too-likely will be calling California for Hillary Clinton. It's hard now to see how Barack Obama can get the majority of the votes in the California Democratic Primary. The recent California Field Poll and LA Times/Bloomberg National Poll , putting Clinton from 9 to 12 points ahead of Obama, seem about right for our state. Talking to people in northern California, I hear a single-digit difference. There are a couple of significant facts in these new polls. First of all, Obama is steadily gaining on Clinton (he was 20% to her 45% in the October Field poll); therefore, as I said previously, on a different course he would catch her and pass her. Another factor is the Asian-American vote, which the new Field Poll admits is only a small part of their small sample. Therefore, Asian-Americans have not really been factored into the equation, and yet Asian-Americans in California likely will vote overwhelmingly for Clinton. Look at the sponsoring committee of any "HillStars" function in this state: many of the surnames are Asian. Again, given time, Obama could overcome the latent prejudice against African-Americans in urban California Asian-American communities, but he has not had the opportunity to do so. In retrospect, will the Obama Campaign regret not putting Obama's half-sister Maya Soetoro-Ng to work in California last spring? A concerted effort on her part, it seems to me, could have made a difference here.

What could make a difference now is the January 31 Democratic Debate in Los Angeles, if by some miracle Barack Obama outshines Hillary Clinton. But it might take divine intervention for this to happen, since Obama is not a top debater. His responses typically are broken with false starts, stutter words and "uhs." He's up against an opponent who in almost every one of the previous debates has convinced us of her "experience" with perfectly-timed mentions of policy specifics. He's hampered by John Edwards, who now tries with false piety to position himself as the voice of truth and reason. Countering Clinton's mounting attacks, Obama is damned if he does, damned if he doesn't go after her in return. Here is another thing that, given time, would make a difference: the increasing ways in which the Clinton team is playing dirty. Most likely, however, the Clinton Campaign has, in a careful calibration, decided that there isn't enough time between now and Super Tuesday for the outrage against their tactics , simmering in the press and among party leaders, to reach average voters.

None of this means that Barack Obama will lose California. And that's the third truth about the Democratic Primary here. He could lose the popular vote, like he did in Nevada, and still get the majority of elected delegates. This is the underlying reality that the polls, the endorsements for Clinton from the big-city mayors, and the way in which Clinton has always led in California press coverage--all fail to capture. But this has always been the strategy of the Obama grassroots campaign in California: target the congressional districts, out of the 53 total, where Obama could get the delegates. Like any intelligent insurgency, from the beginning Obama California has conceded Clintonian superiority. The strategy has been to steal from her in the base even as she dominates from the top. This was the second part of Gov. Napolitano's answer to The Washington Post: Obama has "terrific ground forces the likes of which we've never seen." We will just have to wait until February 5 to see how well Buffy Wicks, who is running the ground campaign, marshalls the troops. It could be a historic day in California presidential politics, where nothing like a grassroots campaign has ever been attempted. Reporters such as Joe Garofoli at the San Francisco Chronicle are beginning to wake up to the possibility.

Nowhere has this difference between appearance and reality been more apparent than in Salinas Tuesday, when Hillary Clinton left South Carolina to campaign in California and Arizona. The Salinas rally in the Hartnell College gymnasium was classic Clinton: tightly-orchestrated and over-produced, but successful in conveying dominance and inevitability. Leaving the rally, one woman said to another, without irony, "Did you enjoy the show?" Indeed there was a mariachi band (good) and the Salinas High School jazz ensemble (very good). Some of the highschoolers had been rounded up for the event. Also assembled, in matching red t-shirts emblazoned with the Aztec eagle, were several hundred members of the United Farm Workers, bussed in from across the state. The importance of the rally was that, once again, Hillary Clinton was collecting a key endorsement in California--this time from the UFW. Before her stump speech, Clinton thanked Helen Chavez (Cesar's widow, too old to attend but "there in spirit"), Rita Morena (Cesar's older sister, sitting in the bleachers), Arturo Rodriguez, the UFW president, who had just introduced her, and Leon Panetta, Bill Clinton's former chief of staff and now retired in Monterey, also present among the crowd of 2500, also a new endorser.

There's no doubt that Hillary Clinton will have the eagle's share of the Latino vote in California--and nothing Mitchell Schwartz, the head of the Obama California Campaign, can argue will convince me otherwise. Yes, Obama has some endorsements from Latino politicians in the state (mostly state senators and congresspeople), but my overwhelming impression in Salinas was that here was a group who have made up their minds. Obama's huge loss to Clinton among the Latinos of Nevada doesn't encourage second thoughts in places like Salinas either. So Tuesday was not a good day in California for Team Obama, reduced to holding press conferences in Los Angeles, Sacramento and San Francisco to mark the anniversary of Roe v. Wade--part of an effort to counter Clinton's smear attacks on Obama's pro-choice record.

But here's the thing. At the Clinton rally in Salinas, I took an informal poll of my own: how many people knew Salinas's congressional district? Nobody, not even the local reporter sitting next to me, knew the answer. Salinas is part of CD17--as gerrymandered a district as you will find; therefore, Santa Cruz is CD17, too. The Obama grassroots in Santa Cruz have their sights fixed on CD17's five delegates. So it doesn't matter that Hillary Clinton has locked up most of the Latino vote inland (and how many Latinos there will actually vote in the primary is "the 64-dollar question," as my local reporter friend at the rally said), because the Obama grassroots have the opportunity to get out the U.C. Santa Cruz students and the very liberal locals to outvote Clinton in CD17. The Obama grassroots have the resources and volunteers to do this very thing. If they can motivate these potential Obama voters the way the Obama team did in Iowa, where people went out to caucus as if their lives depended upon it, then Obama should take CD17. A caution here is Nevada, where the Obama team had the wider, deeper organization and still lost. Therefore, it seems to me that any kind of victory for Barack Obama in California is dependent upon both grassroots effort and his making the case himself in the last ten days. Obama's final week in Nevada, which was not a good one for him, shows how important it will be for the last week in California to be excellent.

On Super Tuesday, Clinton, Edwards and Obama will all get delegates out of California. Likely, Clinton will get more than Obama but not enough to make California her firewall. This California scenario that I propose could also be the larger picture that day. Perhaps one Democrat will get the bigger vote total, the other the larger number of states. A better possibility is that reaching the magic number of 2025 (just over half the delegate total) could come down to the unpledged and pledged "other" delegates and how they are assigned. Just as we had to learn about butterfly ballots and hanging chads and other election arcana, so we may be hearing about "unpledged PLEOs" and "unpledged add-ons" and how pledged PLEOs are . . . well, pledged. None of these ins-and-outs of party preferences and dealmaking mattered in recent elections, where one candidate was the clear winner long before the summer convention. It could be predictive of trouble to come, however, that The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and the CNN election trackers, to name three, have different delegate counts to date. Take a look at the Democratic Convention 2008 website, which divides the delegate votes into soft pledged, soft unpledged, soft total, alternative soft total and hard total. Therefore, the Democratic Party may be riven by more than ethnic/racial divisions before August in Denver. This is not the coming together that Barack Obama has been extolling on the campaign trail, but it's the only way, against the Clintons, that he can win the Democratic nomination. It's going to be a hard ground war, delegate by delegate; California will be the biggest battle, but not the only one.