07/05/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama's California

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton battled it out in the LA debate earlier this year, and she won the primary, but it's Obama's California now.

It began as Clinton Country. For awhile, it seemed John McCain might stake his claim on the Golden State. But now, it is clearly Barack Obama's California.

Without campaigning all that much here, Obama has developed a powerful hold on California. Up by 17 points over McCain in the two most respected public polls in the state, Field Institute and Public Policy Institute of California, taken some weeks ago, the new Rasmussen tracking poll on Wednesday shows Obama now with a stunning 2 to 1 lead over McCain, 58% to 30%.

The latest Rasmussen tracking poll of California -- bear in mind that pollster Scott Rasmussen is an avowed Republican -- shows Barack Obama opening up a massive lead over John McCain in the Golden State, which Team McCain once saw as a possibility. Frankly, this is the biggest lead I can recall in any such presidential poll of California voters. McCain's shift in position for offshore oil drilling is a major backfire. The McCain connection has become not a badge of honor in California, but a negative. Unfortunately for the Republicans, all of their most credible 2010 gubernatorial candidates are officials in the McCain campaign. Hasta la bye bye.

Speaking of which, even McCain's biggest supporter in the West, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, dismisses his drilling idea, saying during a Thursday speech at the Florida Climate Change Summit: "Anyone who tells you this will lower our gas prices anytime soon is blowing smoke. America is so addicted to oil that it will take years to wean ourselves from it. To look for new ways to feed our addiction is not the answer."

So the state in which McCain essentially won the Republican nomination, knocking Mitt Romney out of the race back in February, is now off the table for Republicans both in this election, and likely in 2010 as well, when Schwarzenegger is termed out of the governorship.

Instead, it is a central power base for the new Obama-era Democratic Party. And as Obama dominates here -- as much through a sort of political and social osmosis as through personal campaigning, as Obama became more nationally known and familiar, weathering various crises -- leadership within the state is shifting also.

When Obama appeared at the LA Music Center for Tuesday's big gala fundraiser for his campaign and the Democratic National Committee -- most operations of which the freshman Illinois senator has moved from Washington to Chicago -- he was introduced by California Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, a former nurse from Los Angeles who happens to be the first African American woman to head a state legislative body anywhere in America. The Music Center event raised $5.5 million for the integrating Obama and party operations.

Bass is part of a power shift inside California politics, with Obama backers supplanting Clinton backers. She replaced termed-out former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, who was a national co-chair of the Hillary campaign. And the incoming new leader of the state Senate, Darrell Steinberg, is also an Obama backer who also replaces another Clinton backer, Don Perata.

And two years ago, yet another Clinton backer, then Treasurer Phil Angelides, narrowly won the Democratic gubernatorial nomination over ex-eBay honcho Steve Westly. But Westly, then California's state controller and now a greentech venture capitalist in Silicon Valley, signed on with Obama, becoming one of his earliest and biggest supporters. Now he's leading California's Obama delegates to the Democratic national convention in Denver, and Angelides is staying home.

Westly was very much on hand at the Music Center. As was the leader of California's Clinton delegates, LA Music Center board chair John Emerson. Emerson ran Bill Clinton's two campaigns in the Golden State, was a top aide to President Clinton, and a national finance co-chair for Hillary. But last week he went with other Clintonites to Chicago to join Obama's national finance team.

"The integration is going very smoothly," says Emerson of California Clinton backers joining forces with Team Obama. "They're being very welcoming," he says of the Obama campaign. He and Westly had earlier worked smoothly together in pulling together the overall California delegation to Denver, which will be the biggest at the convention.

"Barack is a great fit for California," says Emerson. "I think Californians are getting to be very excited about his candidacy."

Also on hand at the Music Center was former Governor-turned-Attorney General Jerry Brown, the favorite for governor in 2010 if he chooses to run. (The state's term limits law was passed after his two terms.) Brown, who has useful advice for those who ask, was officially neutral in the primary. He ran against Bill Clinton in 1992, ending as the distant runner-up for the Democratic nomination. Brown had earlier predicted that Obama would prevail easily in the fall here over McCain.

Westly might run again for governor, as well. Other potential Democratic contenders, such as San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi, and LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is not likely to run, campaigned hard for Hillary Clinton around the country.

There is nowhere in America that received more attention from then President Bill Clinton than California. Even more than New York, the classic, aging power center the Clintons selected as their base of operations as they sought to extend their reach in national and global power politics well into the 21st century, California was the key to the Hillary experiment. It was the endless fundraising bonanza, and the state longtime chief strategist Mark Penn selected as the close-out contest to clinch the nomination for Hillary. (Yes, many Clintonites insist that Penn quite mistakenly thought it was a winner-take-all primary. The Democrats don't have winner-take-all contests.)

But polling before she conceded in early June showed Obama leading Clinton in any California re-run, 51% to 38%, and he was running stronger than she against McCain. In any event, while she won California, 51% to 43%, back in February as Obama left the campaigning to surrogates, she and Bill had to spend more time than they expected to hold the state, with the former president devoting the final two days of the Super Tuesday campaign locking down a long-expected win.

Obama had closed a huge gap in California as he did around the country leading into the more than 20 Super Tuesday contests on February 5th. With a few more days time to devote to California, which he did not have, he could have beaten the Clintons here. But without that time, but with his strategic feint in California having succeeded in drawing the Clintons back to the state, he pivoted to other other contests. As Obama garnered a big delegate haul in the Golden State due to the party's proportional representation rules -- with Oprah, Michelle Obama, Caroline and Ted Kennedy, and California First Lady Maria Shriver campaigning for him -- he was off winning other states while the Clintons furiously defended their heavily-cultivated electoral crown jewel.

With Westly and others, such as David Geffen, building an operation from scratch, Obama nearly matched the Clintons in California fundraising. While strong in LA -- he actually raised a little more Hollywood money than Clinton -- Obama was clearly the toast of Silicon Valley. Now it's falling together for Obama, with the base so painstakingly assembled by the Clintons joining with Obama's new machine to form something even more powerful. Geffen will probably join with partners Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg for another big Obama gala this fall.

But there's at least one problem still for Obama in California. And that's the ongoing phenomenon of rumor-mongering about Obama, no little of which seems to emanate from Los Angeles. The conspiracy theories are very involved, but center on the notion that Obama is some sort of "Manchurian candidate" -- folks pushing that stuff might want to check out the actual novel or movie, which doesn't mean what they think it means -- a deeply un-American figure out to advance radical Islam and destroy Israel.

So former LA Congressman Mel Levine, an early Obama backer who is one of Israel's biggest supporters, joined forces with his former congressional colleague from LA, House Foreign Affairs Committee chair Howard Berman, to shoot down the rumors and get the truth out about Obama. Decrying the "persistent effort to undermine and distort Obama's record," Levine and Berman have formed a Jewish community committee to get the truth out about Obama and shoot down the rumors.

Just another way in which California has suddenly become a bulwark of this seemingly most unlikely of prospective presidents.