Why Barack Obama Wins California

Even if Obama doesn't win California outright, he has stopped Clinton by bringing her here to a draw. And perhaps the most astonishing thing is that Barack Obama himself was not in the state.
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Last Thursday, five days before the California Democratic Primary, at a fundraising dinner in Berkeley, a woman says to me, "Now I know Barack Obama is a Muslim, and he went to a madrassa; so tell me all about that." I'm stunned. I hear this kind of thing in my native Tennessee--but in Berkeley? My fellow guest is well-to-do, well-educated and well-traveled. How can she not see straight away that this is disinformation, suspect and spurious? But she's serious. Part of the reason my companion has bought into this untruth is that she is going to vote for Hillary Clinton. I'm seated at a table with a small group of older women--all of whom are Hillary supporters. As I try to tell them a few things about Obama, I realize that they're not hearing me. Long ago, having decided on Hillary, they turned down the volume. Therefore, they have not heard the tenor of the Clinton Campaign; they have never listened to a Barack speech. Now "turning down the volume" is something we all do now and then--I understand the behavior. So I admonish myself, Who am I kidding? There's no way Barack Obama can win--much less win California. Barack Hussein Obama has morphed into urban myth and will never completely disappear. And there are all these women who from the get-go determined to vote for Hillary because of her sex.

Then three days later I watch Bill Clinton's face as he speaks Sunday at Brookins AME Church in Los Angeles. He's looking out at the congregation, but he's staring at defeat. He's an old pol; he knows what's happening. I see this knowledge in his eyes, in the hint of elegy to his recitation of his wife's resume, in his slightly wry reserve, in the way he summons inner strength and discipline to carry him through. Bill Clinton has spoken at many black churches over the years; he's been friends with many black pastors; he's campaigned from the pulpit and he's given eulogies. His welcome has been warm, wide and celebratory. But not this day at Brookins. The sanctuary does not ring with shout-outs and amens. The response is tepid--polite, of course, because after all these are Christian folk--but tepid. Clinton smiles, posing for photos with the minister and the mayor; but he knows.

At this point, it's not possible to overstate the damage Bill Clinton has done to his wife's campaign. I would like to say that everything coming Barack Obama's way, because he has worked hard and nobly, is all his own doing; but it is not. Former President Clinton has made a contribution. Sunday afternoon at UCLA, Oprah Winfrey, speaking to the throng of Obama supporters, replies rhetorically to those who say she is backing Barack because he is black, "Don't play me small." She's voting for the person she thinks is best for the job. What Bill Clinton has done is to play black voters small. In South Carolina, Hillary Clinton long enjoyed such a huge lead precisely because African-Americans, seeing themselves as Americans first, were proud to be in a position to consider seriously and to weigh the merits of two worthy contenders for the Democratic nomination. When Bill Clinton brought the issue of race into the debate and against Obama, however, African-American South Carolinians were forced back to the narrower position of having to defend one of their own. African-Americans everywhere in this country will not quickly forgive.

The morning after the Iowa Caucus, I turned on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," where the pundits were talking about the significance of white Iowans voting for a black man. I said to myself, Oh, right. He's black, and so it's historic. But the thing is--in following the candidates back and forth across Iowa for a week, I had forgotten that Barack is black. Iowans had forgotten. His skin was just one of many things about him. And that's what some people, and significantly, young people, have seen from the beginning. This race is not about "our first serious woman candidate and our first serious black candidate." Nor is it about choosing the one over the other. As a significant portion of the electorate has always known, this race is and always has been about the leader we need now for the nation.

Belatedly, Bill Clinton has realized that there has been a techtonic shift (to use a good California metaphor) in the debate and on the ground. After this extraordinary weekend in California, more people should have at least an inkling. The momentum here for Barack Obama has become a tidal wave (another good California image). Friday he received endorsements from The Los Angeles Times and La Opinion, the biggest Spanish-language paper in the state. Obama's tsunami of media endorsements here now includes all the major dailies. Friday Ted Kennedy stumped around the state for Obama in a series of electrifying rallies. Saturday John Kerry, joyous and relaxed, hit the stump, and Obama canvassers, preparing to hit the streets, were buoyed. Seeing Kerry in San Jose, and the way in which he gratified the crowd, I thought that if he had campaigned like this for himself, he would have won.

Sunday was the big event with Caroline Kennedy, Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama and--surprise! Maria Shriver. (Meanwhile Joan Baez, who like Oprah and Caroline has never endorsed a candidate, issued a statement for Barack. Meanwhile the Obama Campaign ran an ad during the Super Bowl.) This "tent meeting" brought out 9,000 supporters to UCLA's Pauley Pavilion and, more importantly, viewers on C-Span and CNN (C-Span repeated the coverage twice.) The event was a golden opportunity for Buffy Wicks, the leader of Obama's field operations in California, to round up more precinct captains for Tuesday; she made the most of it. Many attendees and viewers probably wondered about the first Maria, the fifth woman on the stage, and why she was thanked so profusely by Michelle Obama. Maria Elena Durazo, the head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, is a Latina guiding the wave of recent endorsements of Obama from California Latinos. Suddenly, every Obama event here has a Latino angle. With the crush of endorsements and Spanish-language television/radio spots, the Obama Campaign is aiming to deny Clinton 60% of the vote in heavily Latino congressional districts and thereby to split the delegates there with her.

The Latino vote is the one wildcard in the California Primary, and I have no idea how it will play. But the presence of four iconic women on that stage Sunday (as well as the clutch of women governors who have recently come out for Obama) says something about that 60% of the electorate who are women. Capping this great day for Women for Obama was Michelle Obama's speech at UCLA. Walking back and forth, talking at length and without notes, Michelle Obama gave one of the great speeches in what has been a race punctuated with great speeches. A minor theme of Election 2008, in both parties, has been "humble origins." And therefore, like John Edwards speaking so often as a "son of a mill worker," Michelle Obama finds her footing in her speech when she begins to talk about her father, a man who, despite a disability, got up every day and went to his blue-collar job and was proud to do it, proud to be able to support his family. But here Michelle Obama turns away from the rhetoric of John Edwards. Where Edwards used his family story as an introduction to a campaign promise to do everything in his power to help people like his dad, Michelle Obama uses her story as an invitation to people like her dad to join Barack and other Americans from all walks of life to make a better place for all of us. To be asked to join, to be treated as a peer and not as a down-and-out needing help, is empowering and ennobling. This is the truth that some in the Democratic Party, especially its younger adherents, have finally understood.

"When you look at me, I want you to see not a First Lady, but I want you to see what an investment in public education looks like," Michelle says. Her speech is full of such hope and promise and affirmation, even as she turns to an explicit call for service and sacrifice, from one and all, again and again. Indeed another extraordinary aspect of this California weekend, this "epicenter of change," as Maria Shriver calls it, has been the way what has always been a minor note in Barack's speech has, with his surrogates, taken center stage. Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama have all told Californians that effecting change is going to require sacrifice. Despite the economic downturn, despite the foreclosures and the looming budget cuts in California, there is a hunger here for joining in something larger than ourselves--a hunger that arose out of 9/11 and has never been fed. Barack Obama, in choosing to announce his candidacy in Springfield, signaled that he understood this. The Clintons have never got it.

And California? Here I could well be wrong, but I think Obama will win the primary. He has the men. He should do better with Latinos than he did in Nevada. He has the John Edwards folk. (Other endorsements this weekend came from the leaders of the Edwards Campaign here.) He has more than a few Democratic women voters, if less than 50%. His campaign has the deepest field organization. If there is a huge turnout, it will mean that new voters, independent voters, re-registered voters and young voters have shown up. These folks, who favor Obama, should make up for the absentee ballots that were mailed early. Interestingly, David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager, has just sent out a letter to "interested parties," saying, "Based on her huge head start, Hillary Clinton should still win California, but is unlikely to achieve her goal of getting a sizeable share of the delegates." Oh ye of little faith. But then he has to play the expectations game. Plouffe says, "If we were to be within 100 delegates on that day and win a number of states, we will have met our threshold for success. . . ."

Even if Obama doesn't win California outright, he has stopped Clinton by bringing her here to a draw. And perhaps the most astonishing thing about this amazing weekend leading to the primary is that Barack Obama himself was not in the state. Friday he was drawing crowds in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, Saturday in Boise, Minneapolis and St. Louis, Sunday in Delaware. (He took time off to watch the Super Bowl with his Secret Service escort at home in Chicago.) Now it's Obama instead of Clinton running a national as well as a party campaign. As the Super Bowl ad shows, Obama has the money to keep going. Most of the 600,000 in his donor pool are nowhere near the $2300 limit for a primary donation, and these supporters are going to keep digging deep--the ladies who stand in line at the P.O. to buy money orders, the students who run up a tab on their new VISA cards, the many individuals who, since I began covering this California campaign last summer, have said, I can hardly believe myself, but for the first time in my life I'm giving money to a campaign. As important as cash is heart: the grassroots, most of whom saw what Barack is about from day one, many of whom work sixty-hour weeks for him for free, some of them Republicans--all of whom stuck with him down through the months when Clinton stayed forty, thirty, twenty points ahead in the polls. A shared vision has kept them going. There is no reason to think that Barack will give them a reason to flag. And as Teddy Kennedy said Friday night in San Francisco, "time is on our side."

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