Presidential candidates don't typically hunker down and stay awhile when they come to the Bay Area. This isn't Iowa or New Hampshire; usually, they sweep through in a whirlwind, leaving tired reporters and buzzing supporters in their wake. That's exactly what Barack Obama did this week, spending about 24 hours here, raising money as well as the hopes of his ardent fans.
Between fundraisers, Obama came to Google, the latest to appear in the company's "Candidates @Google" series. More than a thousand Googlers, mostly young, bright and enthusiastic, jammed the company cafeteria, clutching laptops and smart phones, to see Obama speak, and ask him a few questions. The charismatic presidential contender seemed downright middle-aged among this crowd; several times, he joked about his age and the relative youth of his audience, many of whom crammed onto the cafe's catwalks and balconies in positions older voters would never attempt. Think "Downward-Facing Democrat."
Google is a weird place. I haven't been there in a few years, and its growth is beyond exponential. It used to be a 20GB hard drive and now it's more like a 500-gig. Google security people escorted me everywhere I went, even to the men's room. I'm not sure what they were afraid of; I was more likely to scarf some of their legendary free gourmet food than company secrets. Their techno-smarts extend even to the bathrooms, where there are electronic bidets installed on the toilets, and Java code-writing tests posted in the stalls and above the urinals - something about mistakenly outfitting a Death Ray with a blue laser, when everyone knows green is cooler, so how would you fix that - and why not bone up on your software skills while answering nature's call?
Hillary Clinton probably drew the best of the five previous candidates to visit the Googleplex. But Obama's crowd dwarfed hers, according to numerous Googlers in the audience. Even the Google guys, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, were there, and they're not, usually. Obama was well-received, delivering a 12-minute or so speech about his "innovation agenda" - much of it similar to what all the other Democrats are proposing, except for his call for America's first Chief Technology Officer - and then sitting down for a 45-minute chat with Google CEO Eric Schmidt, and a few questions from the crowd. Obama was smart, funny and thoughtful, and the few Googlers I had time to speak with afterwards came away impressed.
I didn't have much time, because this was Obamapalooza, which meant I was off to the races - otherwise known as Highway 101 at rush hour - so I could make it back to San Francisco in time for the candidate's next appearance, a more typical campaign rally at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. It was Obama's "Countdown to Change" event - except it turned into "countdown until the candidate shows up" for most of the throng of about six thousand. The line to get in snaked around the building, thanks to an oh-so-slow security process of metal detectors and body-wanding, which turned out to be a good thing, since most of the Obamamaniacs didn't get in until long after he was due to speak. But Obama ran especially late, not taking the stage until after 9pm, even though the doors opened at 6:30 and we were told to expect him around 7:30. He was busy raising money at the Atherton home of former California Controller Steve Westly, one of the leaders of his California campaign.
This was another young crowd, even more adoring than the Google bunch; after all, these folks paid money to be there, albeit just 15 to 30 dollars, but it still represents a commitment. They brought Obama to the stage with deafening shrieks, the kind people Obama's age (and mine) associate with Paul McCartney or maybe the Bay City Rollers. Obama's rousing 30-minute speech was punctuated with cries of "I love you!" from young women in the upper balconies. The Senator reacted with bemused smiles and sometimes a sheepish "I love you, too." I've covered most of the candidates now, and trust me, I haven't encountered too many voters with crushes on Hillary or Rudy.
Obama left the crowd buzzing about hope and change and possibilities. He does seem to have some new momentum, but is it enough to win the Iowa caucus? A victory there, or even a very close second, should give him a big boost in New Hampshire, but if he doesn't actually defeat Hillary in one of those states, it's hard to see him winning the nomination. An Iowa triumph will open the money spigot for whoever wins - it will bring magazine covers, a surge of new volunteers and media coverage - but without it, the only change Obama will be able to offer these loving crowds will be the loose stuff left at the bottom of his campaign piggy bank.
(To hear Obama's speeches at Google and in SF, please go to the Featured Audio column, either on the Sovern Nation home page or on Obama's Sovern Nation candidate page)
HERE COMES HUCKABEE
Which brings us to good ol' Mike Huckabee. We have written before in this space about his appealing qualities, and the good folks of Iowa seem to be embracing them. The former Arkansas governor is a tailor-made candidate for Hawkeye State Republicans: he is a staunch conservative with a terrific personal story, he's folksy and downhome, and he seems to be a sincere man of his word. He seems more reliably conservative than the Iowa frontrunner, Mitt Romney; he's more conservative in general than the national poll leader, Rudy Giuliani; and he's warmer and more likeable than Fred Thompson. And as Iowans cast about, searching for the right man from an underwhelming Republican field, more and more of them are settling on Huckabee. Why is he a longer shot than Mitt Romney? Huckabee is a former governor, with more experience in government than Romney, and he's a Baptist pastor, not a Mormon. The bottom line, sadly, is money: Romney's got it, by the bushel full, and has proven he can raise as much as he needs, while Huckabee has struggled to generate campaign cash. But the latest CBS News poll shows him hot on Romney's heels in Iowa, and if Huckabee scores an upset there, the money will flow as never before for him. Click on Latest Polling Data to check out those latest numbers from Iowa.
Nothing underscores the angst of Republican voters more than the split among Christian conservatives, who find something to dislike about every one of these candidates, and whose failure to coalesce around one of them will weaken their own clout within the party and could undermine the GOP's eventual nominee.
We all know politics makes strange bedfellows, but Pat Robertson endorses Rudy Giuliani? The same Pat Robertson who famously said the September 11th attacks were God's punishment for rampant secularism? Now he's endorsing the pro-choice former Mayor of Godless City - I mean, Gotham City? In announcing his support, Robertson proclaimed Giuliani an "acceptable candidate." That's hardly a gushing endorsement. Kansas Senator Sam Brownback used the same words when he threw his support (such as it is) to John McCain, calling his former rival for the nomination "not perfect, but ideologically acceptable." Elsewhere in the past week, the National Right to Life Committee decided to go with Fred Thompson, who proudly touts his "100 percent pro-life voting record"...but Moral Majority co-founder Paul Weyrich endorsed Mitt Romney. Meanwhile, the last time I checked the AP-Ipsos poll, 24% of self-described born again voters were leaning towards Thompson, with 20% supporting Giuliani and 22% still not sure for whom they will vote.
The endorsement split reflects both uncertainty among the party's right wing and a reluctant concession to pragmatism. Conservative Republican leaders have gotten used to winning and they didn't enjoy the 2006 elections one bit. They're genuinely alarmed by the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency, and disappointed by many of the actions of the Bush administration. They want to win in 2008, desperately, and this time around, they're willing to sacrifice some political principles for the sake of victory. But their diffuse and lukewarm support may serve simply to nullify their clout. They won't have as much impact in the nominating process if they split among four different contenders, and they're less likely to rally behind the eventual nominee if only 25% of them actually like him. Let's not forget 1996, when the GOP's conservative wing dithered and waffled and wrung its hands over Bob Dole and Pat Buchanan. Buchanan eventually got their support, but it was too late, and the conservatives didn't turn out in great enough numbers for Dole to beat Bill Clinton, with many of them bolting to Ross Perot's candidacy instead. Democratic voters seem much more likely to be enthusiastic about their party's nominee in 2008, and that could spell the difference in a tight race next November.