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Presidential hopefuls make their California Super Tuesday push

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On the final day before the presidential campaign's biggest prize thus far, today's delegate-rich California primary, the candidates called on influential friends and legions of volunteers to rally their faithful one last time before the polls open.

Republican candidate Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, made a quick stop in Long Beach on Monday night. Rival John McCain, the Arizona senator, planned to jet into San Diego today during a cross-county hopscotch. Both are offering their last-gasp appeals to an electorate witnessing one of the most influential and competitive California presidential primaries ever, for Republicans and Democrats alike.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton felt enough heat from the surging campaign of her rival Barack Obama in California that she dispatched her husband, former President Clinton, for a second day to shore up support among African American and Latino voters.

Jim Brulte, a former Republican state Senate leader and a McCain supporter, said he's seen all the polls and heard the prognostications, and he believes California's GOP and Democratic primaries are still up in the air.

"Anybody who tells you they know who is going to win on Tuesday is either a prophet or is delusional, and I am neither," said Brulte, now a Rancho Cucamonga consultant.

Clinton, who was far ahead of Obama in California a few months ago, has seen her lead dwindle as the Illinois senator reached out to a broad cross section, including liberals, blacks and younger voters.

"We always knew that it was going to be close," said Ace Smith, Clinton's campaign director in California.

Smith said the New York senator was mounting a major statewide effort Monday and today, including the use of 5,000 precinct workers to get her supporters to the polls.

"We're walking. We're phoning," he said. "Between today and the end of tomorrow we are going to make a million phone calls. We are going to have a huge, intensive effort throughout the state."

While Clinton herself was campaigning in other Super Tuesday states, she had numerous surrogates working in California on her behalf, including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez and U.S. Reps. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) and Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove).

"Our assessment is that we're going to bring our vote home," Smith said.

The Obama campaign was hoping to capitalize on the momentum that has been building since he won the South Carolina primary 10 days ago.

Obama's campaign also received boosts from high-profile endorsements by members of the Kennedy clan, including Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.); Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of President Kennedy; and her cousin Maria Shriver, the wife of Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Obama's California campaign director, Mitchell Schwartz, said the campaign has a sophisticated field operation that relies on 6,000 volunteer precinct captains. But Schwartz was publicly playing down the likelihood of a statewide victory and said the campaign was simply hoping to get enough delegates here to stay close to Clinton in the national contest.

Schwartz noted that in August, Obama trailed Clinton by 30 percentage points. A Field Poll released Sunday showed that the Illinois senator is now 2 points behind. But the campaign director shrugged off the numbers. "We have made a lot of progress, but this year, more than any other, the polls have been way off," he said. "I want to keep everybody focused on what we need to do. We're campaigning like we're 10 down."

Under quirky Democratic Party rules, the second-place finisher will get a substantial share of the 370 delegates at stake. In many congressional districts, for example, a candidate who wins 60% of the vote and a candidate who gets 40% will receive the same number of delegates.

Democratic Party strategist Bob Mulholland said interest among voters is unusually strong in this election.

"It's not a vote against someone," he said. "It's a vote between two people they like."

Voter interest among Republicans was also high as the candidates made their final moves.

After at least one poll showed McCain's lead in California dwindling, Romney changed his campaign schedule to make one last stop in Southern California on Monday night.

Romney believes McCain's past support for a comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws -- including a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants -- is his biggest vulnerability in the state, said Rob Stutzman, Romney's campaign advisor in California. "The L.A. media markets touch half the congressional districts in the state," Stutzman said. "That's more delegates than Missouri and Alabama, so it's a good use of his time."

Romney volunteers also have been calling Republican voters for months, making 60,000 calls on Saturday alone, and he's the only GOP candidate who is airing campaign ads throughout the state.

Romney's supporters have zeroed in on areas with low percentages of GOP voters because in the primary the state's Republican Party will dole out three delegates to the winner of each of the state's 53 congressional districts. (Eleven at-large delegates also go to the top vote-getter in the state, and three unpledged delegates will be left to party leaders).

So even in the state's 8th Congressional District in San Francisco, where Republicans account for less than 10% of the registered voters, the winner in the GOP primary will receive three delegates -- the same as the winner in the most Republican district in Orange County.

McCain will make a stop today in San Diego, holding a short rally at an airplane hangar at Lindbergh Field to squeeze out a few last ounces of television coverage during a final get-out-the-vote rally.

McCain's campaign on Monday had scores of volunteers calling Republicans, including mail-in voters who had yet to return their ballots, said campaign spokeswoman Jill Buck.

"Everything is phone, phone, phone," Buck said.

A crew of supporters also gathered at a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in Gardena to burn up the phone lines. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who endorsed McCain last week, dropped by in the early afternoon and dialed for about 40 minutes.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee hasn't had a major presence in California, instead devoting most of his energy on Southern states.

Brian Snow, a Huckabee volunteer in Sacramento, said partisans have staffed phone banks for the campaign, but most of those calls were to voters in Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Oklahoma.

"I guess it's all part of what people are calling the Southern strategy," Snow said. "But I will say that in California, we think he's going to win a couple districts . . . he'll get something."

phil.willon@latimes.com

richard.paddock@

latimes.com

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