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State Supporters Line Democratic War Chests

Times Staff Writers

With six Democratic presidential candidates dashing across California this week, the state’s role in the 2004 race is shaping up as a familiar one: a key supplier of campaign cash.

But while scraping up money in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, White House hopefuls are also laying groundwork for what could be a highly competitive California primary.

Most of the nine Democratic contenders have slipped into California several times, not just to harvest dollars, but also to line up support for a March primary that offers the biggest prize of the race: 370 of the nearly 2,200 delegates needed to win the nomination.

This weekend, six of the candidates will court party loyalists at the state Democratic convention in Sacramento.

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“Of course money’s a big attraction, but you have to win the California primary, and that is a daunting task unless you start to make connections early on,” said presidential hopeful Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor.

So far, none of the candidates has established a firm advantage in California, a notoriously difficult and costly place to campaign.

Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry staked his ground Thursday with a tough speech in San Francisco defending Gov. Gray Davis and blaming President Bush for California’s hard economic times.

If Washington can find billions “to create a coalition of the coerced and bribed, why can’t it provide vital aid for schools, health care and law enforcement in California?” Kerry demanded, referring to U.S. efforts to recruit allies for a war on Iraq.

For all the candidates, an important unanswered question is whether California ultimately will be relegated to its usual status as an afterthought in the nomination fight.

By the March 2 primary, a prohibitive front-runner may have emerged in the burst of earlier contests, clearing the field before Californians even vote. If not, strategists foresee a chance that California’s primary will actually matter for the first time since 1972, when George McGovern beat Hubert Humphrey here to effectively clinch the Democratic nod.

“It could have the impact of the showdown at the O.K. Corral between two or three candidates,” said Democratic pollster Paul Maslin.

For candidates who campaign aggressively in California’s primary, an added reward is the chance to gain an early lock on the state for the general election. Bill Clinton and Al Gore pursued that strategy in their campaigns, enabling them to steer resources to Michigan, Florida and other more competitive states as the general election neared.

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For Bush, who lost California in a rout, the state remains a long shot because of its strongly Democratic moorings. “It’s hard to see how a Democrat loses the state unless Bush is winning a national landslide a la Reagan in ’84,” said Jack Pitney, a Claremont McKenna College political scientist.

For now, the main draw for presidential hopefuls is money. This week, three of them -- Dean, Kerry and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards -- scheduled fund-raising excursions around their trips to Sacramento.

“San Francisco, Hollywood and the Silicon Valley -- that provides the fuel you need to keep alive in New Hampshire and Iowa,” where the first contests occur, said state Democratic Chairman Art Torres.

Indeed, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri is passing up the California convention to work the New Hampshire house-party circuit this weekend. But last month he scooped up cash in Los Angeles and the Silicon Valley, as did another Sacramento no-show, Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman. A spokesman for the 2000 vice presidential nominee said a scheduling conflict is keeping Lieberman in Washington.

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To Silicon Valley donors, Gephardt and Lieberman are familiar faces. Gephardt, the former House Democratic leader, met many of them on his frequent California visits to pick up campaign money for congressional candidates.

Lieberman, a champion of the tech industry on Capitol Hill, is one of their favorites in the Senate, said Katie Merrill, a political advisor to Silicon Valley venture capitalists. Less well known is Dean, but he nonetheless soaked up some tech money last month at a house party in Palo Alto.

Kerry has cultivated Silicon Valley donors in repeated visits. In San Francisco on Thursday, tech moguls were among the hosts of his evening fund-raiser at the Palace Hotel.

“Kerry starts out with a great network that every other candidate should be jealous of,” said Donnie Fowler, a Democratic operative with TechNet, the industry’s bipartisan political action group.

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For Edwards, a trial lawyer who has jokingly called himself an ambulance chaser, Silicon Valley is a tougher courtship. Trial lawyers are unpopular among tech executives, who face constant shareholder lawsuits over gyrating stock prices.

But trial lawyers are the backbone of Edwards’ California money operation. Trial lawyer Thomas V. Girardi set up a fund-raising dinner for Edwards on Thursday in Los Angeles; trial lawyer Joseph W. Cotchett has rounded up donors for a San Francisco lunch with Edwards on Saturday.

Hollywood, a cornerstone of Clinton’s donor base, is another source of rivalry among Democratic suitors. So far, the only big-name commitments are to Dean (Rob Reiner and Martin Sheen) and Gephardt (Michael Douglas). But Hollywood has stepped up scrutiny of the candidates amid a growing sense of Bush’s vulnerability, said DreamWorks executive Andy Spahn.

“There’s been real dramatic momentum on the ‘Is Bush beatable’ question, from a starting point of ‘This is an exercise in futility’ to ‘One of these guys is going to wake up in the White House,’ ” he said.

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Beyond the money chase, some of the candidates are starting to build a California ground operation -- albeit with less urgency than in Iowa and New Hampshire -- by lining up elected officials, volunteers and leaders of core constituencies, from environmental groups to labor unions. The Rev. Al Sharpton has worked the African American community on trips to the Bay Area.

Other announced presidential candidates set to address the convention are former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio. Florida Sen. Bob Graham is recovering from heart surgery and will not attend.


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