Bill Clinton makes pitch in California

Times Staff Writer

Former President Clinton urged Democratic Party superdelegates and activists Sunday to be patient in selecting a presidential nominee and let the primary election process play out over the coming months.

A vigorous campaign between his wife, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama will not damage the party’s prospects of beating the Republican nominee in the fall, Bill Clinton said in a speech to the California Democratic Party convention.

“Don’t let anybody tell you that somehow we are weakening the Democratic Party,” he told the 2,100 state delegates. “Chill out and let everybody have their say. We are going to win this election.”

Before his speech, the former president met privately with about 16 superdelegates who will vote at the national Democratic Party convention in August on the party’s nominee. The nomination is expected to be in the superdelegates’ hands; neither Obama nor Hillary Clinton appear destined to win the 2,024 pledged delegates needed to secure the nod.

The former president also encouraged superdelegates not to decide prematurely on the nominee and deny voters in upcoming states the chance for their votes to count, several superdelegates said afterward.


Of the 65 California superdelegates selected so far, about 21 have not declared a favorite, party officials say. Of those who have made up their minds, Hillary Clinton leads Obama 29 to 13. Clinton won the Feb. 5 California primary by eight percentage points over Obama.

“President Clinton urged us to let the process play out,” said Christine Pelosi, an uncommitted superdelegate who is the daughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “It was very inspiring. The president’s emphasis was clearly on electing a Democratic president.”

Obama representative

The Obama campaign declined to send a nationally known surrogate to the San Jose convention to counter the former president, but enlisted San Francisco Dist. Atty. Kamala D. Harris, one of Obama’s California co-chairs, to speak on his behalf.

“It is Barack Obama who has the ability to bring our nation together,” Harris told the delegates. “Barack Obama will be the president who finally ends the era of fear that has been used to divide and demoralize our country.”

For Harris, the state’s first female African American district attorney but little known outside the Bay Area, the chance to address the convention on Obama’s behalf was a big opportunity. But she acknowledged that going head-to-head with the former president -- one of the party’s “heroes,” she said -- was daunting.

“Can you say ‘gulp’ ?” she joked Saturday.

In her address, she likened her appearance before the convention to Obama’s candidacy:

“When you really think about it, hasn’t that been, from the beginning, what this campaign to elect Barack Obama has been about?” she asked. “Hasn’t it been about the audacity to do things unimaginable?”

In response, supporters in the crowd began chanting “Obama, Obama.”

Much of the drama at the three-day convention played out behind the scenes, where surrogates for the presidential candidates continued to woo undeclared superdelegates.

With 71 superdelegates (including six who have not been selected yet), California has more superdelegates than most states have pledged delegates. Winning over the 21 uncommitted votes would be as valuable as sweeping a primary in Rhode Island or Hawaii.

The superdelegates, made up mainly of members of Congress and the Democratic National Committee, are free to change their mind up until the August convention in Denver.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, one of Clinton’s most vocal California supporters, said he was among hundreds of surrogates who have been assigned certain superdelegates to pursue. It is a process, he said, that has been going on for months.

“There are some superdelegates who just smile and say, ‘Don’t talk to me, don’t talk to me,’ ” Newsom said. “They are here knowing full well that people like me are out to get them. But they don’t want to be part of it because they want to maintain their neutrality until the very end. I’m just glad I’m not a superdelegate.”

Art Torres, chairman of the California Democratic Party, is one of the few superdelegates who has not been targeted -- because under party rules he cannot declare his choice until the national convention.

“I am very lonely,” he quipped. “I haven’t gotten wine. I haven’t gotten cookies. I haven’t gotten anything, no calls. I am one of the loneliest superdelegates in the nation.”

Clinton has long had an edge in superdelegate support because of her early status as front-runner. But in recent weeks, Obama has chipped away at that lead even as he has held onto his advantage among pledged delegates won through elections. Clinton’s task now is to win enough votes in the upcoming primaries to maintain momentum while luring the necessary superdelegates to her side.

Litany of issues

As he pressed Hillary Clinton’s case, former President Clinton spoke in detail Sunday about many of the campaign issues important to Democrats: aiding homeowners facing foreclosure; ending the Iraq war; developing alternative energy; and creating universal healthcare.

“The American people know the country has to change,” he said. “They know that we are not working at home and that our position in the world is badly out of place.”

But he disputed the comments of some leading Democrats and Obama supporters that the prolonged campaign was going to hurt the eventual nominee in the race against the presumed Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain.

Recalling a bit of history, Clinton said that in June 1992, after he won the California primary and formally secured the nomination, he had been beaten up so much that he was running third in national polls behind independent Ross Perot and incumbent Republican President George H.W. Bush.

But after the Democratic convention, he said, polls showed him on top. He called the harsh campaign a “blessing in disguise.” (Clinton did not mention that, in part, the polls shifted because Perot left the race during the convention only to return later.)

“There is somehow this suggestion that because we are having a vigorous debate about who would be the best president, we are going to weaken this party in the fall,” he said. “Don’t let anybody tell you that somehow we are weakening the Democratic Party. We are strengthening the Democratic Party.”