Sunday, June 22, 2008

Obama, McCain fixate on California

With Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain heading to California early this week, the state's players, themes and issues are helping shape the historic showdown for the presidency, even if California doesn't make anybody's list of battleground states.

Home to progressives, pragmatists and headstrong politicians, California will be a proving ground as political and business leaders take major roles in the campaigns. They are crafting the candidates' agendas on topics ranging from technology to foreign policy, while navigating particularly sensitive issues in the limelight, such as same-sex marriage and offshore oil drilling.

And with fundraising records already shattered, California is set to lead that race, too. Already, residents have contributed a staggering $100 million to presidential candidates this election cycle. And hundreds will be attending McCain or Obama fundraisers this week, bringing in another several million dollars by Tuesday night.

Democrats are feeling secure about Obama's chances of winning the state in November, so they are looking at California as a resource.

"My job is not to win California, though we will do that, it's to get the campaign the money to get into places like Ohio and Pennsylvania so they can start now," said California Obama co-chairman Steve Westly.

But McCain and his supporters, such as Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO, are actively campaigning in the state, Advertisementbelieving it is still in play.

"California is important. Being in the state helps him stress high-tech innovation, free trade and a position on immigration appreciated by the Hispanic community," said Fiorina, who will be campaigning for McCain in San Francisco this week.

The state's role as incubator for controversial issues also means it can't be ignored, even if McCain and Obama might sometimes wish it could be.

Images of same-sex weddings were beamed all over the nation last week and now Obama faces a tricky question: What's your position on same-sex marriage? Obama does not support same-sex marriage, but has quietly opposed the constitutional amendment on the November ballot to ban them. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom wants Obama to be more vocal in his opposition.

McCain last week called for new oil drilling off the nation's coasts, and plans to pay a visit Monday to Santa Barbara, where a 1969 oil spill helped launch the environmental movement. His position is directly at odds with many Californians and supporter Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The governor quickly distanced himself from the proposal, saying the California coast is "an international treasure," protected by a three-decade-old federal moratorium on offshore drilling "and we're not going to change that."

These, mind you, are the candidates' supporters talking.

Still, McCain and Obama are seizing on opportunities to use the state as a platform to showcase themes they think have national appeal. McCain will highlight his independence from the GOP establishment, for example touting his support for climate change regulations. Obama will rely on California Latino leaders to help mobilize support among Latino voters in other Western states up for grabs.

Most analysts agree California's 55 electoral votes appear secure for the Democrats. "McCain was going to lose California anyway, but his gamble to back offshore drilling means he will lose California by 20 points, and it will cause him trouble in Florida," said Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network, a group backing Obama.

John Feehery, a GOP strategist who was former Speaker Dennis Hastert's spokesman, was blunt about the status of the GOP in California: "The party is seen as dog meat — tainted dog meat at that."

Not so fast, says Fiorina The state is "still in play" for her candidate, she says. Fiorina is expanding her role beyond economic issues to reach out to women, including Hillary Rodham Clinton supporters.

"Some of Hillary Clinton's supporters reached out to me, so we have a real opportunity when I tell them about John McCain," Fiorina said.

The hot-button issues that emerge in California can play out in unpredictable ways. National polls show support for the drilling, and that might help McCain among blue-collar workers elsewhere.

Same-sex marriage, while supported by about half of Californians, according to the latest polls, is not as popular in key states Obama is targeting, notably among Midwest working class and Catholic voters. Obama's campaign issued a statement on the day the California court ruled in favor of same-sex marriages in which he said he opposes the then-proposed amendment.

Newsom said last week he was disappointed in Obama for not taking a stronger position against the amendment, now that it's qualified for the November ballot, noting whenever Obama comes to California he will be asked about his position.

The Obama campaign in response, e-mailed the original statement, which read "he opposes all divisive and discriminatory constitutional amendments, state or federal."

Already several prominent Californians are stumping for their candidates, ranging from Latino leaders to technology visionaries talking about Californians' thoughts on other controversial issues, including immigration and free trade.

And then there is California's role as money bags. Obama's decision Thursday to forgo public financing means he has no spending limits. He raised nearly $30 million from Californians during the primary, many in small contributions and from an impressive network including several Silicon Valley leaders.

"The sky's the limit, with respect to energizing and financing his campaign," said John Roos, CEO of the law firm Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati and a member of Obama's national finance committee. On Tuesday, Obama will appear at a star-studded fundraiser at the Los Angeles Music Center.

The McCain campaign and its supporters are counting on Schwarzenegger to draw from his California electoral success and appeal to independents and moderates. Schwarzenegger advisor Adam Mendelsohn says Schwarzenegger "was disappointed" by McCain's oil drilling stance, but will campaign for him after the state budget is resolved.

Schwarzenegger and Republican Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida "will play a critical role in the national campaign. They are post-partisan governors, stressing the importance of competent government, and that's what McCain is trying to do. That has great appeal to independent voters," Feehery said.

In the same vein, Obama will rely on top California Latino politicians to boost his popularity among Latino voters, many of whom voted for Clinton in the primaries. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa met with Obama at a mayor's conference Saturday is vowing to work as hard for Obama as he did for Clinton.

McCain, who is better known among many Latinos than Obama, aired his first radio ads of the general election campaign in early June, Spanish-language spots in New Mexico and Nevada. McCain is proposing that he and Obama appear at a town hall discussion at the National Council of La Raza convention in San Diego in July.

Obama has work to do, say some Clinton Latino backers, including Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Anaheim, who told Congressional Quarterly last week of Obama "Change is not enough. If you want me to go out and sell you to people, I want to know what you're doing."

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