Candidates fight for votes coast to coast

Times Staff Writers

Summoning the "God of second chances," former President Clinton appealed for votes for his wife in African American churches in Los Angeles on Sunday, nudging close to an apology for having used language that many thought was racially insensitive.

As he tried to secure for Hillary Rodham Clinton the strong support he enjoyed from African Americans, Clinton went out of his way to say that he understood the tension between voting for her, at his request, and casting a ballot for Barack Obama.

Though the word apology never came out of Clinton's mouth -- nor did the name Obama -- the tone of his remarks was a reversal of dismissive remarks last month, when he called part of Obama's pitch a "fairy tale" and compared his South Carolina victory with one of the primary wins in Jesse Jackson's ultimately unsuccessful candidacy.

"We have to find a way to choose without division," Clinton told congregants at Brookins Community AME Church in Leimert Park. "To disagree without discord. To celebrate the shattering of all these phony categories that have kept Americans apart too long."

The Obama campaign answered the visit by the surrogate-in-chief with a raucous rally featuring its own roster of influential endorsers at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion. In addition to Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey and Caroline Kennedy, California first lady Maria Shriver was at the rally -- and was formally introduced as part of the Obama camp.

Winfrey made essentially the same argument to women as former President Clinton made to African Americans: No knee-jerk voting, please.

"Every part of me believes in the empowerment of women," Winfrey said. "But the truth is I'm a free woman. Being free means you get to think for yourself and you get to decide for yourself what to do."

The dynamic of the day matched that of the California race as the last frenetic weekend before Tuesday's vote came to a close.

The Clinton campaign, watching its once-overpowering lead crumble week by week, was -- like former President Clinton -- in something of a defensive crouch. The Obama forces were trying to ride late-breaking momentum to a victory that would have appeared unlikely even a week ago. As former President Clinton appeared before voters who by no means were all looking favorably at him and his wife, the Obama camp gathered thousands of supporters on short notice, in the rain, on Super Bowl Sunday.

A Field Poll released Sunday had Clinton and Obama in a dead heat in California. Clinton's two-point advantage, within the poll's margin of error, represented a drop of 10 percentage points since the last Field Poll two weeks ago. Neither candidate planned to return to California before Tuesday's vote; Obama campaigned in Illinois and Delaware on Sunday while Clinton was in Missouri and Minnesota.

For the Obama campaign, the rally featuring high-powered women was part of a political necessity: convincing women, who dominate the state Democratic Party, to abandon Clinton.

Winfrey called the election "a declaration of victory for women's rights and civil rights. . . . For the first time we can just vote as we believe."

Michelle Obama struck back at one of Hillary Clinton's common campaign arguments -- that she is more experienced at fending off Republican criticism.

"We live in Chicago, people!" she told the crowd. "Don't worry about whether Barack is tough enough."

Clinton's Los Angeles visit was meant to shore up support in the African American community after weeks in which he made comments considered off-putting at best.

At the Baptist Church of the New Covenant in Norwalk, his second stop of the day, Clinton's visit got off to a rocky start when he showed up almost an hour late. The pastor had passed time by asking those with February birthdays to call out their day, and had worked his way down to wedding anniversaries and the birthdays of the large media contingent by the time Clinton arrived.

"Well, now, if I was running I sure would be on time," Pastor L. Daniel Williams told the congregation before Clinton walked in. "I don't care about almost here, they should be here."

Clinton, whose arrival was greeted with applause, expressed sympathy for the dilemma faced by voters torn between his wife and Obama.

"I've been waiting all my life to vote for an African American president," he said, then added: "I've been waiting all my life to vote for a woman for president. And on this Sunday, I feel like God is playing games with our heads and our hearts."

He repeated his remarks at Brookins, noting, "We believe in a God of second chances.

"We respect the choices people make in this election," he said. "If you can't be for her, we honor that."

The appeal worked with some -- Williams told him that "for many people, you are still our president" -- but that did not necessarily mean votes for Clinton's wife.

Edward L. Jordan, a legal assistant who heard Clinton at Brookins, thought the former president was making up for playing racial politics.

"Come on, when you say, 'Well, Jesse won South Carolina' -- we knew what you meant by that. Basically you're saying . . . a black guy that can put a couple of sentences together could have won South Carolina," Jordan said.

"It's like many of us say in the African American community, you don't necessarily need to wear a sheet on your head anymore. There are other ways to show how you feel."

The change of tone was "the right thing to do," he said.

At his appearances Sunday, Clinton reminded voters of the economic boom during his administration -- "the '90s look pretty good," he said repeatedly -- and that was enough to add to the confusion for voters like Paula Raines of Leimert Park, who works for a finance company and has seen today's economic uncertainties up close.

"We didn't know we had it that good" in the 1990s, she said. Raines said she took Clinton's comments as an apology for his earlier remarks.

"You know, in politics sometimes the words fly out before you ever think of what's being said," she said. "People make mistakes."

But she still has not decided whom to vote for Tuesday.

"I'm still torn," she said. "I still have to pray on that."

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cathleen.decker@latimes.com

mark.barabak@latimes.com

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