Like seven candidates before him, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd made the pilgrimage to Google on Monday in what has become a rite of passage in this presidential campaign.
But the longtime Connecticut senator and long-shot presidential candidate brought something a little different: a challenge to the powerful Internet company to protect free expression around the globe.
Dodd, who has struggled to stand out in the crowded Democratic field, called on Google to defy the Chinese government and stop censoring information in Web searches there.
“What better way to affirm Google’s commitment to democracy and the free flow of information as a human right than to send this message to the country with the largest population in the world?” Dodd asked a crowd of about 100 Google employees. “When Google acts, others follow.”
Dodd is one of several presidential candidates visiting California in a flurry of public appearances and fundraising events before the final weeks of campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire. Voting in those states will start shortly after New Year’s; California’s presidential primary will be held Feb. 5.
In Los Angeles, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama offered 5,000 supporters at a Universal City fundraiser a stiff repudiation of the Bush administration.
“We were promised a compassionate conservative and we got Katrina and wiretaps,” he said. “We were promised a uniter but got a president who couldn’t even lead the half of the country that voted for him.”
Obama also appeared to chide his chief competitor for the Democratic nomination, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. “I don’t want to spend the next four years having the same arguments with the same lack of results,” he said.
Earlier, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, used a Los Angeles conference on green technology to tout his plan for energy independence.
Richardson vowed that as president he would lower carbon emissions by 80% by 2040, significantly earlier than other candidates have pledged. He also jocularly saluted former Vice President Al Gore, whose lifelong advocacy on the subject of global warming resulted in his receipt Monday of the Nobel Peace Prize.
“Al Gore’s been right for years,” Richardson told several hundred gathered at the GreenXchange conference in Century City. “I just hope he doesn’t get into the race. I think it’s a little too late.”
Dodd, 63, is making his first run for president after serving 26 years in the Senate. For the campaign, he has moved his family to Iowa and enrolled his 6-year-old daughter in kindergarten there -- temporarily giving Iowa three senators and Connecticut one.
So far, however, he barely registers in presidential opinion polls.
In campaign appearances, he stresses his experience as a senator, as a Peace Corp volunteer and as a member of the National Guard and Army Reserve.
He makes quips about his white hair and earlier released a commercial showing him answering questions in a mock interview with a white hare sitting nearby.
The senator acknowledged that he made a mistake in voting in 2002 to authorize the Iraq war. “I’d love to have that vote back,” he told the Google audience.
Addressing the World Affairs Council in San Francisco on Sunday, Dodd called for an end to the use of torture and a return to the rule of law.
He cited his own family background: His late father, Thomas Dodd, was a prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crimes trials after World War II before serving two terms in the Senate.
The candidate, who recently published a book of letters that his father sent home from Nuremberg, said the postwar trials established a precedent of international justice and gave the United States the moral high ground.
Today, he said, the U.S. is better known for abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba.
He maintained that the United States needs a leader with experience and cites President Bush as evidence. “We elected a president with limited ability and experience in these areas, and we paid an awful price for that,” he told reporters before his speech in San Francisco.
At Google, where Democratic and Republican candidates alike have come to court the Internet moguls, Dodd pushed the company to take a strong stand for free expression and use its leverage with China.
Last year, Google established the Google.cn search engine in China. Unlike Google.com, it limits searches for certain words. When Chinese users search the site for a subject that has been censored, they get a disclosure notice saying the information is not available because of local laws.
Adam Kovecavich, a spokesman for Google, said the company wrestled with the question but ultimately decided that working with the Chinese government was the best course.
“This is one of the most difficult issues we face as a company,” he said. “When it comes to operating in other countries, we prefer engagement over estrangement and making available as much information as possible.”
Dodd, in his speech at the Googleplex, argued that the company should threaten to withdraw from China entirely if it is not allowed to provide uncensored searches.
He called on Google to “expand free expression, reject business with repressive states, and protect users in those countries.”
“That is how the Internet can be part of something greater than ourselves,” he said, “and spread democratic principles around the world.”