Although many Democrats quietly despair over Phil Angelides' uphill fight against Arnold Schwarzenegger, there is one group flocking to the underdog's side: the party's 2008 presidential prospects.
Here comes the parade, from Washington and beyond: former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and John F. Kerry of Massachusetts.
Due in soon are New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut and retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark. And former Vice President Al Gore, who is or isn't thinking about another White House run, depending on the latest rumor.
They stand next to Angelides and express their deep regard for the state treasurer's principles and passion. They take a swipe at Republican Gov. Schwarzenegger, speaking off Angelides' campaign talking points. The choice, Warner said in a recent campaign stop, is between an incumbent who "walks in lock-step" with President Bush and a Democrat committed to improving public schools.
But the main reason the political tourists come is one that Willie Sutton would understand. He robbed banks, Sutton supposedly said, because that's where the money is. And that is why presidential candidates come to California, only to abandon the state once the competition heats up in Iowa, New Hampshire, Florida and the Midwest, where presidential campaigns are typically decided.
"A lot of what this country discusses is being driven by California.... A lot of leaders of this party and this country are in California," said Nick Baldick, a strategist for Edwards, who -- for the record -- is not at all committed to running for president in 2008 despite every outward appearance that he plans to do so. "It's important to get in front of them, mostly to listen to them, but also, if you decide to run, so you're a viable option down the road."
The difference between a workaday political candidate and a candidate who might seek -- or someday live in -- the White House is easily quantifiable by the number of reporters and television cameras attracted by the latter. So Angelides happily welcomes one and all, standing in their reflected light, even if some of the appearances have been tacked onto West Coast swings in a perfunctory, I-was-already-in-the-neighborhood fashion.
Politics, after all, is nothing if not a transactional business.
"They jazz up the base. They give us some media attention," Bill Carrick, an Angelides strategist, said of the potential White House contestants. "Most of them are very much philosophically in tune with Phil Angelides, so they reinforce our message."
A few even have long-standing relationships with Angelides, who was state party chairman in the early 1990s, when California began its transformation into today's presidential stronghold for Democrats.
But Carrick, a veteran of several White House campaigns, acknowledges that the party's name-brand visitors have their own reasons for schlepping all this way.
"In order to have political and financial viability in California, you have to have some exposure and create some buzz about you and your potential candidacy," he said. "That's all part of it."
Democratic presidential hopefuls raised $181 million in California in the 2004 campaign, according to state party figures, well ahead of the $135 million raised in runner-up New York. That's a lot of trips to the gilded ghettos of Brentwood and Beverly Hills, the Silicon Valley and San Francisco's Presidio Terrace. An appearance alongside Angelides in Oakland or at Los Angeles Trade Technical College is a good way for a presidential hopeful to establish some man-(or woman)-of-the-people street cred.
"It shows you're not just doing fundraisers but helping the party as well," said Noah Mamet, a Los Angeles-based consultant who has raised money for a number of Democratic candidates over the years.
Of course, there are risks any time a national candidate sets foot in California, which is still viewed by many elsewhere as the sunshine-addled land of kooks and weirdos.
"The people coming out have got to worry about 49 other states," said Andrew Acosta, a Democratic strategist in Sacramento who is not aligned with any 2008 contender. "They're obligated to come out, because this is the place to raise money. But you don't want to get caught up in internal California politics, which don't always play well in the heartland."
Clinton happened to arrive for an Angelides fundraiser the day after New York's highest court upheld a ban on same-sex marriage. At a news conference, she stood alongside San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who earlier had made national headlines by legalizing gay marriage in the city. She steadfastly refused to discuss the issue -- a fact that dominated reports of her visit.