California dreaming

Clad in a black Monterey pop festival jacket with the word “Peace” emblazoned on the back, Robin Tarne doesn’t look like a typical Bush Republican. “I was for Bush and I believed in the war but as time went on I became saddened,” she says. Around her, in a chain hotel bar in Calabasas, San Fernando Valley, her words provoke a hush.

“I believed in the good guy,” she continues, “the cowboy who can go in and sort things out.”

But that was then. Now, Tarne has joined five other volunteers at a phone bank. A staple of American grassroots political campaigning, a phone bank involves like-minded individuals getting together to cold call registered voters in the hope of getting them to the polls and, perhaps, voting for their candidate.

But this phone bank is not for Mitt Romney or John McCain. Tarne is here to push the word for a Democrat, Barack Obama. “I like Obama,” she says. “I don’t agree with everything he says, but I understand it.”

Sitting at another table is George Kappas, who first noticed Obama when the Illinois senator made a speech at the 2004 Democratic convention. “I’ve sort of kept an eye since,” he says. Like Tarne, Kappas has crossed the political divide.

“I’m a lifelong Republican. I’ve never donated before, I’ve never volunteered before. I guess I’m feeling like it’s kind of important. I like this guy.”

At the Obama campaign’s West Los Angeles headquarters, in the bohemian coastal city of Venice, volunteers tramp up the stairs, cellphones in their hands, laptops under their arms.

BJ Donovan, one of six full-time volunteer staff based at the office, also voted Republican in 2000 and 2004. “Ever since, I’ve been independent,” he says. “I think there’s a huge trend moving away from identifying yourself with a party because people have seen how partisan politics doesn’t work. The independents are going to carry us if we’re going to win this state.”

That much at least the pollsters and analysts would agree on. While Obama’s rival, Hillary Clinton, has a seeming lock on most of the demographic categories in the delegate-rich California, the independents may be the ones to wriggle the state away from her grasp.

Democrats are allowing California’s three million independent voters to take part in the state’s primary, one of at least 22 elections across the United States on next week’s Super Tuesday. In contrast, California Republicans decided to restrict their primary to voters registered as supporters, thus depriving the party of the possibility of attracting swing voters to its tent, and leaving the Democrats as the sole suitor of such voters.

And this year, unlike 2004, the Democrats have a candidate in Obama who attracts independent voters—and even Republicans.

According to conventional wisdom, independents are expected to make up between 8% and 12% of Democratic primary voters in California. But 2008’s Democratic primaries have not followed convention so far. Turnout among first-timers, independents and young voters has been unprecedented—from South Carolina to Nevada. And the chief beneficiary of this surge in interest has been Obama.

The latest poll of registered Democrats, published by CNN and the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday, gives Clinton a healthy lead of 49% to Obama’s 32%. The figures reflect strong backing for Clinton among Latinos, women and those earning less than $80 000 a year.

To win, Obama will need to dent some of that support, win over the bulk of the undecided Democrats, recently estimated at a sizeable 20% of Democratic Party voters, and persuade those all-important independents to join him.

This week’s endorsement of Obama by Edward Kennedy, a party grandee with a strong pro-immigrant record, may help him among Latinos. Kennedy will join the candidate on the campaign trail in California later this week.

The decision to move the Californian primary up in the calendar was designed to give the most populous state more of a say in the nomination of the candidates for November. However, the uncertainty surrounding the Democratic race may well mean that despite the state’s trove of 441 delegates, representing almost a quarter of those at stake in more than 20 elections on Super Tuesday, California may not be decisive. Both the Clinton and Obama camps are suggesting that they expect the fight to extend well beyond February 5.

This—along with the sheer size of the state and the logistical problems that causes—may explain the low-key nature of the campaign in California so far. The TV ads are running, the mailshots have been sent out, and the phone calls are coming in—but candidate appearances have been rare.

That will change over the next few days as the candidates—Republican and Democratic—arrive in California for two televised debates, and the campaigns move from phone banking to door-to-door canvassing.

Back in Calabasas, the Obama volunteer George Kappas muses aloud about the campaign. “Why did you come here?” he asks. “To see six people who changed the world?”

It’s meant as a joke, but there is a sense that he, and the five others with him, believe the fairytale might just come true.—Â



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