Presidential hopefuls have open calendars for donors with open wallets

The divide between attention to the wealthy and inattention to the unwealthy is deeper in California

Thursday's radio report danced with anticipation — rain was on the way — and then anchor Dick Helton broke in with news of another sort.

"Hillary's in town," the KNX mainstay chortled. "She's here for the money."

No surprise to anyone, she was. And no one needed to be told where she was headed. Hillary Rodham Clinton would spend the day on a key leg of the national money trail, traveling from Westwood to Pacific Palisades to Beverly Park, the gated enclave off Mulholland Drive that is the literal pinnacle of Angeleno wealth.

From a breakfast with women to a lunch hosted by a noted producer to a dinner with nationally known entertainment names, the Democrat's path took her through only the most gilded portions of greater Los Angeles. And it raised anew the campaign conundrum for a presidential candidate whose major argument is that she understands the angst of the economically stressed American voter.

When do they get a seat at the table?

It's not a new conundrum, to be sure. It takes money for a candidate to get out a message, even when the message is that the candidate cares about people without money. To campaign solely amid the misbegotten confers moral superiority, maybe, but it almost surely leads to defeat.

So Clinton, and all the Republican candidates similarly foraging in California, are playing the game according to the rules. But they are rules that seem to broaden the distance between the political donor class and everyone else, a distance gaping in an era when "super PACs" pull in millions per donor and even the smallest entrance fee to the Clinton events, $2,700, is an extravagance to most.

The divide between attention to the wealthy and inattention to the unwealthy is deeper in California, for multiple reasons. This is where the money is: The state is the most generous national donor to candidates and causes, delivering nearly $200 million of the $1.6 billion the two party nominees collected in 2012. So it's the vault every candidate has to crack.

But California isn't competitive in presidential contests, meaning that there's little incentive, particularly this far from election day, to campaign among the masses. Not to mention that campaigning here is a television sport, which requires money. Round and round the circle goes.

The early and important states are teeming with candidates meeting with regular folks — gatherings that are captured by cameras and forwarded to even more regular folks. In Iowa, you can hardly hit a Pizza Ranch — the chain whose restaurants dot every town — without running into someone seeking your vote. In New Hampshire, the locale shifts to historic diners, but the candidate concentration is the same.

And in California? Democrats move from one elegant, Architectural Digest-worthy home on L.A.'s Westside to the next. Republicans do the same in the gated expanses of Orange County. Both try to mine the deep pockets of Silicon Valley.

And regular folks just hope the fundraisers won't mess up traffic.

Unlike President Obama, whose penchant for dropping in during rush hour draws the ire of Los Angeles drivers, Clinton is traveling light; media organizations that regularly suggest ways to escape the presidential jams didn't have to bother.

Republicans are in and out of California with similar fleetness. Presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, a losing Senate candidate here in 2010, has "private events" — usually, that means money meetings — in Los Angeles on Monday. Ten Republican contenders already have traveled to Orange County to meet with New Majority, the political group whose heft among GOP donors makes it the counterpoint to the Westside Democratic salons.

And they may be back because many of California's donors are holding off deciding which candidate to support. "With most, it's coming down to electability," said Tom Ross, the group's political director. Donors, he added, are asking: "Who's going to be able to win the White House?"

There is a chance that the GOP nomination will be tied in knots long enough to be decided in the last primaries — including California's June contest, in which delegates will be apportioned to the winners in each congressional district, a system meant to heighten competition.

"Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina get a disproportionate amount of attention early on, but I don't expect us to be the tail wagging the dog," said state GOP Chairman Jim Brulte. "I think California has the opportunity to decide who the nominee is."

Yet among Democrats, Clinton has no substantial challenger and, given her primary victory here in 2008, would be favored even if she did. (A campaign official said one Clinton staffer is now working in California to train volunteers ahead of the primary, as in other states.)

So for now, the campaign will largely be conducted as it was Thursday on a placid and lovely street east of UCLA, where Clinton's first fundraiser was about to be held. In a perfect metaphor for California's presidential standing, a man driving a Bentley waited patiently as a BMW slid into position for the valets.

Twitter: @cathleendecker

For more on California politics, go to latimes.com/decker.

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