Hillary Rodham Clinton, with eye on 2016, keeps California close

Hillary Rodham Clinton returns to California on Friday for a round of speeches and events that underscore the state's significance to her family's political fortunes and the potential presidential campaign she is pondering.

From the time four decades ago when she lived in Berkeley with then-boyfriend Bill to the resounding victory in the 2008 California primary that revived her first presidential effort, California has provided support, solace and tens of millions of dollars in campaign cash for the family's pursuits.

The state's significance is obvious from Clinton's schedule.

"She was here last week, she's here this week. She's been here, I can't even count how many times," said former City Controller Wendy Greuel, an early supporter of Clinton's 2008 presidential bid who spoke Wednesday night before a group urging her to run in 2016. "It's been frequent, very much, because she's beloved — and because of the importance of this state if she chooses to run."

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Clinton's earliest experiences in this state were forged while clerking for a left-wing law firm in Oakland during the summer of 1971. Bill Clinton decided to forgo campaigning for presidential candidate George McGovern to spend the summer living with then-girlfriend Hillary, a period that the conservative New York Sun once dubbed their "Berkeley summer of love."

After Bill Clinton was elected governor of Arkansas, he frequently returned to California to solicit investments in his state. Along the way, he forged relationships that helped secure his 1992 presidential victory. Donors in the state gave more than $5 million to his two presidential campaigns — a lot of money, then — leading the pack among donors nationwide.

"California was incredibly important. He understood that from the very first," said Mickey Kantor, a Los Angeles lawyer who served as Bill Clinton's campaign chairman in 1992 and later as the U.S. trade representative and secretary of Commerce in his administration. "He needed to have both a fundraising base and an electoral base out here if he was going to be elected president."

Bill Clinton's California supporters also provided crucial support after allegations surfaced early in the 1992 primary season that he had had an affair, Kantor said.

"It appeared he might be the walking wounded, if not dead," Kantor said. As the allegations exploded, the campaign held a fundraising dinner at the Beverly Wilshire hotel, where future Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Rep. Maxine Waters surprised the crowd by endorsing him.

"I defy anyone to have a better combination than that," Kantor said. "It was really a boost to him emotionally and psychologically, also to the campaign. We actually raised some money that night."

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Bill Clinton had effectively become the Democratic nominee by the time the California primary occurred that June, but his victory — over current Gov. Jerry Brown — clinched the nomination.

Clinton's administration showered attention on the state — assisting, for one thing, with the hasty rebuilding of the area's transportation system after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, said former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

"Even more than Ronald Reagan, who came from California, they understood how important California was to the nation — as California goes so goes the nation — and they spent a lot of time here, both in their campaigns, but more importantly during the eight years Bill Clinton was in office," said Villaraigosa, who added that serving in leadership positions in the Legislature at the time gave him an "up-front view of their commitment to the people of this state."

"They delivered for California in a way that we hadn't seen before or since."

Villaraigosa was a prominent Clinton supporter during her unsuccessful 2008 presidential run, in which Californians donated some $23 million to the then-New York senator. Clinton came into the state wounded by a string of losses but won California's February primary by eight percentage points, powering her through to later victories if not the nomination.

"No question about it," said Ace Smith, Clinton's state director in 2008, "it was a point in the election cycle where people were really looking at California as a make-or-break proposition, and she came through huge."

Many of the California events Clinton has been attending as she considers a 2016 race are tied to people who have been loyal to her family, could be useful to a future run, or both.

Last week, Clinton headlined a Southern California fundraiser for her longtime friend Terry McAuliffe that was hosted by entertainment mogul and donor Haim Saban, before speaking at a benefit for an environmental organization championed by longtime friends Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen.

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On Friday night, she will receive an award for her work with women and children in Third World nations at a Beverly Hills gala hosted by Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg, among others. On Saturday, she will be honored at a brunch at USC by the Mexican American Leadership Initiative, before she heads to the Bay Area to give a paid speech to Realtors and appear at a benefit for her family's foundation.

"There's a lot of energy for her here. There's a lot of money, a lot of trust and support," said Esprit cofounder Susie Tompkins Buell, a major Democratic donor and longtime Clinton friend who is a founding member of the finance council of a "super PAC" that is urging Clinton to run.

"I think that's what she needs and it feels right to her."

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