Obama strikes campaign gold in O.C.

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Times Staff Writer

On the Balboa Bay Club’s wall of its most famous guests, there are photos of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Gerald Ford and, of course, the Duke.

There are no Democratic politicians. Securely tucked behind the Orange Curtain, Newport Beach is Republican-held territory.

But Barack Obama may be hoping to change that.

On Sunday, the Democratic Illinois senator brought his campaign to the center of Republican power and did what he has done better than any other presidential candidate -- raise money.


Obama would leave with $1.2 million, an organizer estimated. With this infusion, he may exceed the amount GOP candidate John McCain has raised in Orange County.

“It is the hot ticket in town,” said Santa Ana lawyer Wylie A. Aitken, one of the state’s leading Democratic fundraisers.

Aitken, who represents plaintiffs who sue corporations, was on the host committee for Sunday’s event, as were lawyers Frank Barbaro, chairman of the Orange County Democratic Party; and Leigh Steinberg, who represents sports figures.

Obama has drawn attention for his success with donors who contribute in amounts less than $200. Through May, he had raised $136 million of his $287-million total that way. But small donors were not his target Sunday.

About 40 contributors gave the legal maximum of $28,500 each to the national Democratic Party. They and 225 others each gave the maximum $2,300 allowed to Obama.

Donors included a few dozen Iranian Americans, who chipped in at least $200,000, Obama’s aides said.


Jerry Howard, 63, is a Republican who has never voted for a Democrat. Nor had he ever given money to Democrats -- until he wrote a $28,500 check to the Democratic National Committee. That gained him the privilege of meeting Obama at the VIP reception, on a patio overlooking the harbor where yachts the size of small houses are moored. Obama donor and pharmaceutical company founder Milan Panic had his 125-foot yacht tied up a few dozen feet away.

Howard, a retired owner of a hotel design company, said, “I was shocked they were going to have a fundraiser in Orange County, the heart of Republican country.” It’s not that Howard dislikes McCain. But he said he was “astonished” at the state of the economy, and places much of the blame on Republicans. He is not certain he will vote for Obama. But encouraged by his wife, Deborah, he is leaning that way.

“At least he is something different,” Howard said.

Obama has vastly out-raised McCain in California, $37 million to $12.5 million through the end of May. But McCain had bested Obama in Orange County, $2 million to Obama’s $1.3 million. With Sunday’s event, however, Obama may have caught up.

“We thought it was symbolic,” said Barbaro, explaining why the event was held at the Balboa, long a favorite haunt of John Wayne and other Republican icons. “If you’re going to take it to them, take it to them where they live.”

Few experts expect Obama to carry Orange County. Republicans maintain a significant voter registration advantage, 46% to 31%.

But Obama’s visit made political sense. The Balboa resort is a union facility, which appeals to Democrats. And the Democratic population in the county is large. There are twice as many Democrats as in San Francisco -- 488,703 to 240,358, at last count -- and the number has gone up more than 36,000 since 2004.


Barbaro and others are counting on Obama to draw Republicans like Geoffrey Lyon. Lyon, 50, lives in Huntington Beach and supports the Iraq war. But he also gave Obama $2,300 this year.

“It is a historic candidacy, and I didn’t want be on the wrong side of it,” Lyon said in a recent interview.

A labor lawyer who represents employees in discrimination cases, Lyon said he thought an Obama presidency would be “good for America.” He said he believed it would be more difficult for radical Muslims to “teach people to hate America when we visibly live up to our principles. The racial divide -- it is time to end.”

Obama met privately Sunday for about 15 minutes with Iranian Americans. People who attended said he spoke of his desire to use diplomacy while standing up to rogue nations.

“He came across as young and full of energy,” said Santa Ana lawyer Houman Fakhimi, a Democrat who attended.

Obama visited Orange County once before in the campaign. This was his first visit since he locked up the nomination. Aitken had supported fellow trial lawyer John Edwards. His wife, Bette Aitken, had backed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.


“Now there is one choice. It is time to come together,” said Aitken, who tapped friends and associates to raise “well over $100,000” for Sunday’s event.

On this trip, Obama was met by actor Louis Gossett Jr., Lakers point guard Jordan Farmar, Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post and an old school chum, Greg McGrath.

“He was a funny guy with a big smile. We called him Barry,” McGrath said.

He said it never dawned on him that Obama might one day run for president. But the Dana Point businessman readily wrote out a $2,300 check.

“It is time for a change,” McGrath said. “Republicans -- what can I say -- have messed it up.”


Times researcher Maloy Moore and data analyst Sandra Poindexter contributed to this report.