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By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 3, 2008

BERKELEY, Calif. -- The clouds hang low and gray over the vermilion hills that cradle the most famously liberal city in America. On an overcast winter afternoon, Berkeley really does seem to carry the weight of the world.

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"I read the newspaper. I listen to talk radio. I look online to see what's available. I'm still torn," said Patricia Luchak, 61, at the cheese counter of an independent supermarket called Berkeley Bowl. "I've been racking my brain about whether to go to Hillary or Barack. They both have good points."

Retired from the San Francisco Chronicle, Luchak works as a dog adoption counselor and a volunteer for BAD RAP, or Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pitbulls. She has shopped at the Bowl since it was in an actual former bowling alley, with aisles so narrow that navigating two carts should have ended only in collisions, except "Berkeley people are pretty cool."

Cool? Chuck Metcalf shopped for Moro blood oranges in a blue beret. He had been halfway through a pile of John Edwards fliers that the Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club had talked him into distributing when he heard that the populist lawyer had dropped out.

"I put the rest in the trash," Metcalf said, uncorking a choice epithet for the "dishonest corporate media" that gave "short shrift" to Edwards and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich.

"We're looking at a rigged election in which Hillary Clinton will face McCain," he said. His own preference?

"Obama, of course. I don't know what else to do."

At 77, the retired architect said he feels more and more alone in his politics. "There aren't that many of us," he said. "So many of my friends are in the graveyard, because of what they did to themselves, what we all did to ourselves."

You wouldn't know it at the Bowl. In the bulk-foods aisle, past the vegetarian baco-bits, Erica Klempner said she had been up in the air for a while but had decided on Sen. Barack Obama, even though -- "kind of a typical comment about him" -- she'd prefer he had more experience.

Klempner is 37 and a graduate student in philosophy?

"Indeed."

In frozen foods, Lara Jealous ("It's French, but they spell it with an X"), 40, had thought hard about New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson but ended up with Obama, too. Her brother runs a Web site that raises money for him.

"He's got some idealism," said Joan Ellis, 50, a chef buying celery root and Chinese parsnips for the meals that Silicon Valley executives handsomely pay her to deliver to their homes three days a week. "Don't quote me, but it took me forever to say his name right."

"Very big on campus, I'd have to say," Katie Hills, 21, a development studies major at the University of California, said of the senator from Illinois.

Did no one prefer Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who polls show is leading Obama everywhere in California -- except here in the Bay Area, where at last count they were even?

"I think I like Hillary," said Joseph Smith, 41, a stocker in produce. He bagged garlic bulbs with a practiced smoothness and spoke of the excellent wages and benefits at the Bowl. "I'd like to see a woman president."

"I like the lady," said Tony Hernandez, shelving shiny packets of butter lettuce. Nineteen years in the country, he had heard of Obama, but "I work 10 hours a day six days a week, so it's hard to follow the news."


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