Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama wrapped up his first California campaign swing Tuesday by invoking the civil rights legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. at a Crenshaw rally, then collecting more than $1 million in checks at a celebrity-studded gala in Beverly Hills.
The freshman senator from Illinois offered both crowds variations on his pledge to put a stop to what he called the “slash-and-burn” politics and insider culture of the nation’s capital.
“There’s something happening in the country,” Obama told several thousand supporters waving blue “Obama ’08" signs at the afternoon rally on a Crenshaw ball field. “There’s a mood in the air. There’s a sense that the way we’ve been doing business for the last couple of decades has to change -- that we are at a crossroads in this nation’s history.”
The South Los Angeles rally and Beverly Hills reception were the showcase events of Obama’s three-day trip to California. Obama, who formally announced his candidacy 11 days ago, has dazzled Hollywood glitterati for months. But for many, the Beverly Hilton soiree -- thrown by DreamWorks studio co-founders David Geffen, Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg -- offered their first chance to see him in person.
Stars who showed up for the $2,300-a-ticket event included Jennifer Aniston, Morgan Freeman, Eddie Murphy and Ben Stiller. From the reception, Obama headed to Geffen’s Beverly Hills estate to dine with about 40 guests -- those who raised at least $46,000 apiece for the Hilton gathering. Obama raised money earlier this week in La Jolla, San Francisco and Palo Alto.
The huge crowd at the Crenshaw event reflected the extraordinary interest that Obama has generated nationwide among Democrats. It is highly unusual for a presidential candidate to draw thousands of supporters to a Los Angeles rally nearly a year before California’s primary -- or even to try.
“Obama may be the only one who can do that right now, which is significant,” said Joe Trippi, who ran Howard Dean’s White House campaign in 2004.
Obama, who would be the nation’s first black president, plans similar rallies over the next week in Austin, Texas, and Cleveland.
His stop in the predominantly black Crenshaw area was part of his effort to build support among African Americans, a mainstay of the Democratic Party. His only press interview during the California trip, aides said, was with the Los Angeles Sentinel, an African American weekly newspaper. On March 4, Obama plans to speak in Selma, Ala., at a commemoration of the landmark 1965 voting rights march.
In Crenshaw, Obama spoke to the racially mixed crowd of King’s inspiration amid the setbacks of the civil rights era, and said his campaign for the presidency also required Americans to work to improve society.
“We can transform the country, right here and right now,” he said. “We’ve got to win, though, to make a change.”
Obama’s California trip underscored the state’s increased prominence in the 2008 race. To enhance California’s clout in the party nomination contests, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state lawmakers have agreed to advance the state’s primary to Feb. 5.
Other big states -- New York, New Jersey, Florida, Texas and Illinois among them -- are also taking steps to move their primaries to Feb. 5. In years past, candidates would typically dart unseen through such states to raise money for the crucial opening contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
But with the crush of primaries now expected to occur Feb. 5, candidates already are jostling to heighten their visibility in big states that rarely welcome so many of them so early in the election season.
A leading Democratic candidate, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, held a campaign forum Tuesday in Miami. A top Republican, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, will appear in Long Beach with Schwarzenegger today to spotlight the senator’s efforts against global warming, a popular cause in California. And Republican presidential hopeful Rudolph W. Giuliani stumped for several days in California last week.
“It’s going to be physically impossible for a candidate to spend time in 15 or 20 states in the first week of February next year, so the more time and effort they put into those states now, the more of a presence they’ll have to sustain them when the bullets start flying,” said Dan Schnur, communication director for McCain’s campaign in 2000.
Still, with the price of a White House victory running into the hundreds of millions of dollars, the prime focus of candidates’ trips to the big states remains money.
Clinton, for instance, plans to meet privately with potential donors later this week at Creative Artists Agency in Century City on a California trip that, so far, includes no public appearances. She also plans fundraising events at the office of Hollywood film mogul Haim Saban and the Pacific Palisades home of investor Sim Farar, as well as an event sponsored by Iranian immigrants. Clinton has also scheduled at least two California trips next month to raise more money, in some cases from donors also giving to Obama.
Obama’s Los Angeles trip merged Hollywood money-raising with traditional politicking. In Beverly Hills, Obama said that when Americans see movies such as “Schindler’s List,” or “Hotel Rwanda,” they can feel what it’s like “in the other guy’s shoes.”
“What an enormous power that is,” he said. “What an enormous responsibility.”
In Crenshaw, as he has elsewhere in the country, Obama vowed to end the war in Iraq and expand health coverage to all Americans.
“There’s a sense that we have a government that is no longer responding to ordinary people, that it’s become an insider’s game, that it’s all about slash and burn, and negative politics and deal-making, but that it is not expressing the basic values and ideals that we hold as Americans,” he said.
The message resonated with Marilyn Ventress, a 51-year-old Pasadena woman in the real estate mortgage business.
“People are craving authenticity,” she said after hearing Obama at the rally, “and I think that’s what he has.”
Times staff writer Tina Daunt contributed to this report.