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Villaraigosa remains on the front lines

L.A.'s mayor rallies Clinton volunteers in New Hampshire.

January 07, 2008|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

NASHUA, N.H. — A few minutes after 9:30 a.m. on Sunday, dozens of volunteers filtered into a storefront campaign headquarters where a massive photograph of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton smiled out from a window beneath a dingy Whirlpool appliance sign.

The plan for the day was to get boots on the ground for a door-to-door canvass of Nashua, about 15 miles down the Merrimack River from Manchester. The Clinton organizers were eager to get started on the crucial last Sunday before Tuesday's primary.

But first they had to listen to speeches from out-of-town strangers -- two Massachusetts state legislators, a congressman from New Jersey and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, whose name one of the legislators kept shortening by a couple of syllables.

"Why would the mayor of Los Angeles . . . leave sunny California in the dead of winter to go to Iowa or New Hampshire?" Villaraigosa asked about 40 people gathered in a temporary phone bank in the store basement. "The answer is quite simple: This is the most important election in my lifetime."

And, he said later, because the Clinton campaign asked him to.

This is the second state on Villaraigosa's tour on behalf of the New York senator. He campaigned for several days in Iowa, talking to Latino immigrants in Marshalltown, union people in Muscatine and rural folks in Indianola.

He flew to New Hampshire with Clinton on a chartered plane hours after she placed third in the caucuses, and he has been similarly put to work here trying to energize various parts of the Democratic base.

"I want to make a difference, and if that means canvassing voters, as I have, knocking door to door; if it means walking into diners; if it means rallying the troops -- whatever it is, I'm ready to roll up my sleeves and do it," Villaraigosa said.

One of the most persistent criticisms of Iowa's and New Hampshire's roles as make-or-break early nomination states is their lack of ethnic diversity. Minority populations total in the single digits in both states, and while Villaraigosa's political success would likely resonate with any Democrat, it carries extra weight with immigrants or the children of immigrants.

On Sunday, the signs were there that Villaraigosa had been dispatched to the appropriate -- if rare -- spot. The Clinton headquarters is down the street from the Iglesia Pentecostal y Misionera church and around the corner from the Siberia Food Market -- with half of its sign in Cyrillic letters -- and the Brazilian Restaurant and Pub.

But the mayor seemed mystified when asked what message he could deliver to strangers more than 3,000 miles from his political base.

"I have no idea . . . that's a question to ask the campaign," Villaraigosa said, standing beneath a dripping, iced-over awning before heading off to a noon Clinton rally at a local high school. "I'm here because they've asked me to come -- and I want to make a difference."

In their talks with the volunteers, Villaraigosa and the other three politicians preached to the faithful, emphasizing to the Clinton devotees her experience -- a key campaign theme in the struggle over calls from Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina for new blood -- and her longtime commitment to fixing healthcare.

"The vast majority of us are looking for somebody with experience, somebody with the strength and the leadership that we need during these times," Villaraigosa said. "My mother used to tell me, 'You're not who you say you are -- you're what you do.' And the best way to see what you're going to do is to see what you've done."

As Villaraigosa and the other politicians spoke for more than half an hour, some canvassers began filtering out, and loud voices talked of moving people into neighborhoods. It was a small battalion eager to work toward a common purpose.

It turned out they had something else in common too.

At the start of his pep talk, Villaraigosa called out the names of states as volunteers responded with cheers for their homes. Massachusetts. New York. California. The fewest cheers?

New Hampshire.


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