Senator Hillary Clinton, in this NWN video with Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez
and many legislators at her post-speech presser, is lining up California’s Democratic
establishment, usually a questionable strategy in the Presidential primary.
On a big weekend for California Democrats, two presidential candidates dominated, one more than another, a couple others shined, and a record crowd of delegates, guests, and media types found the inside of a cavernous concrete convention center to be more sparkling than the San Diego harbor resort attractions within easy walking distance just outside.
Despite being obviously under the weather with an audibly sore throat, frontrunning Senator Hillary Clinton gave the best speech Saturday morning I’ve ever heard from her. She talked about her background, her mother’s humble beginnings, how she herself became engaged with public service, how she pledged to end the war in Iraq, a moving story about an uninsured man who died from an abscessed tooth after $300,000 was spent in a fruitless effort to save him, and so on.
She got a good response, with only a few scattered catcalls for her past support of the Iraq War. That good response was swallowed up by the overwhelming response won later in the day the rival close on her heels in the latest Wall Street Journal national poll, Senator Barack Obama.
Clinton is an extraordinarily formidable politician, deeply experienced, skilled, with a powerful machine. Obama is a sensation, a superstar, an extraordinary talent, hitting a strong popular chord that resonates on both the left and the center.
Still, while Obama had the biggest response, as well as the biggest volunteer operation, and I’ll focus on Obama in the next column, Clinton is doing all she can to build the strongest possible conventional campaign. She stuck around for several hours after her speech, meeting with key Democratic interest groups and politicians. Her campaign may soon name as state director Ace Smith, a very experienced operative who recently played top roles in the campaigns of LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Attorney General Jerry Brown. (Brown, the former governor and two-time Democratic presidential runner-up, gave a powerful speech to the convention while Villaraigosa played a much more low-key role, appearing only at an emotional Saturday night banquet honoring House Speaker Nancy Pelosi which was all but ignored by the press.)
While Obama was accompanied in his convention sojourns, which were extensive, by former state Controller and eBay honcho Steve Westly, San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, and state Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero of LA, Clinton was attended by a phalanx of politicians, led by Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez.
“We have the biggest endorsers, a lot bigger than Obama’s,” said one of the state’s top Democratic strategists, now supporting Clinton. Former Governor Gray Davis and state Treasurer Bill Lockyer endorsed Clinton — no surprise, since they gave maxed out personal contributions during her big fundraisers last month — along with a host of other prominent names.
Speaker Nunez brought along 15 other state assemblymembers to endorse the former first lady at her post-speech press conference. State Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata — whose name Clinton mispronounced as “Peretta” — is expected to endorse the New York senator soon.
But the track record of California’s Democratic political establishment in presidential primaries is not promising. Especially in time of controversial war. Just ask the backers of Edmund Muskie and Hubert Humphrey. And Obama, who raised more money in a quarter than any presidential candidate in American political history, much of it from some of the sharpest players in technology, finance, and entertainment, is anything but a fringe figure.
Obama didn’t do a press conference, choosing instead to communicate with the voters through the footage and reports of his powerful appearance. Clinton, along with the others, did appear at a press conference with Nunez and the posse of legislators seen in the NWN video above.
She took about a half-dozen questions, two of them from Democratic bloggers which she easily slipped with boilerplate. Her responses were skilled and polished, and could have been delivered most anywhere in the country.
While the huge press contingent, much bigger than at any other press conference, was happy to have seen her up a little closer, not much light was shed. Incidentally, some of her key California supporters were noting the challenge of working with Clinton’s Secret Service detail. They have many requirements, which I know from personal experience, but they also come in very handy.
The Secret Service held the press in the press conference room after Clinton departed. As a security precaution. This also prevented the press from knowing that she wasn’t actually leaving the convention center, or, of course, from following her to the private meetings I mentioned above.
In the face of these two juggernauts, the other candidates struggled. Former Senator Mike Gravel was a curiosity at state Democratic chairman Art Torres’ welcome reception Friday night, which I did not attend. (I’ve learned at a couple dozen of these conventions that generally nothing happens on Friday of any interest to those not directly participating themselves.) Gravel did reportedly say at a press conference that the budget gap could be partially filled by going after “ladies of the night” who don’t pay their taxes and that the government should stop spending like “drunken Indians.” Moving right along.
With most of the press disappearing after Obama’s speech, Senator Chris Dodd and Congressman Dennis Kucinich struggled for attention on Saturday afternoon. I saw Dodd, a powerful committee chairman in the Senate, hanging out on a veranda after a very lightly-attended press conference. Meanwhile, Obama was on his way to LA for a big Hollywood fundraiser.
The candidates appearing Sunday, former Senator John Edwards and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, fared substantially better. But they suffered from a big drop-off in the crowd and among the press.
Edwards gave an outstanding address, which easily ranked with those of Obama, Clinton, and Brown as among the best of the convention. A very polished and passionate figure, Edwards would be leading were he not in a field packed with such firepower at the top. Initially a more centrist Democrat, Edwards clearly pitched himself as the candidate of labor in his address, as well as a passionate opponent of the Iraq War he once supported.
For his part, Richardson, perhaps the most qualified of the field, is still searching for an opening into the top tier. Richardson’s solution on Sunday was to go long, telling a lot about his background and his plans on education, health care, energy, the environment, immigration, taxes, and foreign policy, in frequently amusing fashion. He did this both in his speech and in a lengthy press conference, which top aides several times tried to get him to halt so he could make his flight to San Francisco, where he appeared at an afternoon rally on Darfur before continuing to Carson City, Nevada for the beginning of a tour of that second-in-the-nation contest state where he hopes to break through.
In all, a very interesting weekend, and I’ll have more items, columns, and videos today and the next few days.