The tussle for campaign endorsements has taken on unusual importance in the Los Angeles mayoral race as incumbent James K. Hahn and challenger Antonio Villaraigosa battle for huge blocs of swing voters in the San Fernando Valley and South L.A.
The two rivals are aggressively -- "frantically," as Villaraigosa put it -- courting public figures whose validation they see as golden assets.
Among the main objects of flattery are Bob Hertzberg, the former Assembly speaker from Sherman Oaks who fell just short of capturing a spot in the May 17 runoff, and former Mayor Richard Riordan. Both are seen as potential lures for Valley residents, Republicans and Jewish voters. Each candidate took Hertzberg to lunch this week at his favorite Studio City deli.
Hahn and Villaraigosa have also cajoled basketball star Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) and City Councilman Bernard C. Parks, who came in fourth in the first round of voting for mayor. Each is viewed as key to building support among black voters in South L.A.
In the 2001 mayoral race, Waters put her substantial political operation to work for Hahn. She has endorsed no one so far in the current campaign. But among Los Angeles Democratic operatives this week, there has been rising speculation that she is leaning toward Villaraigosa. Waters did not return a call for comment.
To the big groups of voters who backed neither Hahn nor Villaraigosa in the March 8 balloting, endorsements offer cues about which candidate is "most likely to best represent their interests," said UCLA political science professor Frank Gilliam.
"This is a very interesting strategic chess game being played right now," he said.
Endorsements rarely swing many votes directly, but they can build a sense of momentum behind a candidate. That in turn can spur fundraising and boost the morale of campaign staff. A shortage of marquee supporters can have the opposite effect.
In the first two weeks of the runoff campaign, Villaraigosa has pulled ahead in the endorsement race. The latest was Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, who announced Wednesday that she was joining the "ongoing parade" of Villaraigosa backers.
As Villaraigosa's camp seeks to foster that sense of a parade swinging into step behind him, Hahn has begun using the language of an upstart with minimal outside support.
Despite his position as the incumbent mayor, he described himself this week as a "maverick."
Tuesday night, after the county Democratic Party snubbed him by throwing its support behind Villaraigosa, Hahn said the move should come as no surprise. Hahn's family -- steeped for decades in Los Angeles politics -- has never been "part of the establishment," he said.
"Never have been, never will be," said Hahn, who has held elected office for 24 years and whose father, Kenneth Hahn, was a county supervisor for 40 years.
"We're mavericks, and if you're a maverick, you do things that can make some people mad at you from time to time."
The mayor's effort to cast himself as underdog was further underscored Wednesday when he said he had accepted eight invitations to debate Villaraigosa. The challenger has agreed to three debates, but was still weighing whether to participate in the others.
Hahn is not without prominent supporters. His campaign brochures are splashed with testimonials from U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). His website trumpets support from church pastors; business groups; Eli Broad, the billionaire philanthropist; and an assortment of local politicians.
Most important, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor has pledged money and its army of volunteers to Hahn's reelection effort.
But with Villaraigosa pulling ahead in the scramble for endorsements, Hahn's campaign has sought to minimize their importance and lower expectations for the mayor.
Dismissing the value of Villaraigosa's endorsement this week by Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), Hahn strategist Bill Carrick asked: "Is there a number below zero?"
The only surprising thing about Molina's announcement of support for the challenger was that "she took so long to get around to doing it," Carrick said. Riordan's endorsement of Villaraigosa in the 2001 mayoral race "didn't do any good," he added.
"I think these endorsements are overrated," Carrick said.
Still, the mayor acknowledged Wednesday that he had met recently with Waters, who has wielded great influence among black voters in past elections, to solicit her support in the runoff. He declined to provide details.
"When I have private conversations with people, they're private," Hahn said during a campaign stop at a South-Central charter school where he quizzed youngsters on what a mayor should do for the city.
Last week, Villaraigosa and his top campaign advisors met with the congresswoman, along with her husband, Sidney Williams, and daughter, Karen Waters, said Villaraigosa strategist Parke Skelton.