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Obama raises stakes among Democrats

The senator takes a step toward a presidential bid. Candidates will vie for staffers and support.

California Cash Is Key

January 17, 2007|Janet Hook and Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Sen. Barack Obama's decision to take the first formal step toward running for president marks an extraordinarily rapid rise in politics -- and sets up a high-stakes competition for campaign money, staff and supporters with the presumed front-runner for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

Obama's announcement Tuesday that he had established a presidential exploratory committee opens the door to a marquee race offering the most serious test yet of whether the nation is ready to elect a black or female president.

Having served barely two years in the Senate, Obama also is testing a sturdy piece of conventional political wisdom after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks: that voters are wary of electing a president who might need on-the-job training in foreign policy.

The Illinois Democrat, 45, is gambling that voters will see his lack of national governing experience as an asset, not a liability, at a time when the electorate is seething with discontent with the Washington establishment.

"I am struck by how hungry we all are for a different kind of politics," Obama said in his announcement Tuesday. "The decisions that have been made in Washington these past six years, and the problems that have been ignored, have put us in a precarious place." In a sign of the importance of the Internet to political campaigning, Obama made his announcement not in a public appearance but in an e-mail statement and a video posted on his website.

A charismatic speaker with an unusual life story, Obama has been enthusiastically received by audiences around the country as he has traveled to promote his latest book and, increasingly, to sound out voters in states with early presidential primaries and caucuses.

His announcement steps up pressure on Clinton to formally launch her own campaign, a move that is expected soon. Howard Wolfson, a senior Clinton advisor, declined to comment on Obama but said, "Sen. Clinton has a strong case to make for her own candidacy, and is going to have to make the best case for herself."

The combined star power and national fame of Clinton and Obama threaten to siphon off vast amounts of money and attention from lesser-known candidates in the crowded Democratic field.

Obama already is competing with Clinton for donors in California, the No. 1 source of money for Democrats. So far, he has been popular among major donors.

San Francisco lawyer Jeffrey L. Bleich, who raises money in the Bay Area for Obama, said contributors "feel like you've done them a favor by inviting them" to a reception for the Illinois senator -- far from the norm in fundraising.

That surge of enthusiasm, which could easily fade, has caught the attention of Clinton advisors.

"He's going to have an effect on our fundraising -- no question about it," said Sim Farar, a major Clinton fundraiser in Los Angeles. "But at the end of the day, we will raise enough money for Hillary's campaign."

Clinton, who hired Los Angeles fundraiser Diane Hamwi on Sunday to oversee her West Coast effort, has a huge head start.

As of last month, she had $14.4 million in campaign money in the bank; Obama had $756,000. Drawing on her husband's White House fundraising network, the former first lady expects support from many Democratic heavyweights, including supermarket magnate Ron Burkle and Hollywood moguls Haim Saban and Stephen L. Bing.

Despite that "amazing machine," said Margery Tabankin, a top Hollywood political consultant, Clinton faces resistance from some donors over her early support for the war in Iraq, which Obama opposed.

Hollywood donors expect music and film tycoon David Geffen, a major supporter of Bill Clinton when he was president, to play a role in Obama's effort to raise money from the entertainment industry.

Film producer Lawrence Bender, another major fundraiser who often holds receptions for presidential candidates at his Holmby Hills house, said he would raise money for Obama, and possibly for other Democrats running for president.

In Silicon Valley, Obama has sparked interest among venture capitalists and high-tech donors, said Katie Merrill, a Democratic strategist in the Bay Area. "It's something the Clinton campaign should take notice of," she said.

Noah Mamet, a Los Angeles consultant who has raised money for many Democrats, said California's overall importance for the 2008 White House contenders will be heightened by Clinton's automatic edge among donors in New York, where she can largely box out her rivals.

"California -- and in particular Los Angeles -- is going to be the biggest battle for fundraising on the Democratic side," he said.

Another Democratic candidate challenged by Obama's entry is former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, the Democrats' vice presidential nominee in 2004, who has been trying to position himself as the leading alternative to Clinton.

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