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Clinton's California Dream Team

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By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 7, 2008

LOS ANGELES -- He had spent long nights squirming in a chair at the Kodak Theatre waiting to find out whether he had won an Academy Award, but Rob Reiner had rarely felt so nervous. Thirty minutes before last week's Democratic debate, the movie director and ardent Hillary Rodham Clinton supporter tugged at the knot in his red tie as he entered the venue's four-story archway on Hollywood Boulevard.

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Reiner took his seat on the first floor, not far from Leonardo DiCaprio, Steven Spielberg and Stevie Wonder. The two candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination -- a black man and a white woman -- walked onto a stage famous for hosting the Oscars and waved at the Hollywood glitterati. It was a moment so ripe with tension, so loaded with historic significance, that it reminded the "When Harry Met Sally" director of far-fetched fiction.

"It was like the history of the world," Reiner said, "hung on every word."

At least it felt that way for him and for other Clinton supporters who had spent the past year working to deliver her the crown jewel of presidential primaries: California. With the race tightening and rival Barack Obama riding a wave of enthusiasm after his decisive victory in South Carolina on Jan. 26, it seemed possible that the senator from Illinois could wrest that prize from Clinton and inject his insurgent candidacy with unstoppable momentum.

But Obama and his supporters may have underestimated the deep connections with California that Clinton and her husband had cultivated. Starting in Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign, the two devoted time and effort to the state, reaching out to its diverse constituencies, drawn to their glamour, wealth and power. In organizing her own White House bid, Hillary Clinton called on those friendships for money, for contacts and for influence, and when NBC News projected early Wednesday that she had carried the state, it was clear that her friends had delivered.

Reiner was one of those backers Clinton called on, and there were many others -- people such as Amy Rao, a Silicon Valley businesswoman adept at fundraising; Antonio Villaraigosa, the dynamic mayor of Los Angeles; and Dolores Huerta, a labor activist beloved in the dusty San Joaquin Valley.

These four Californians were emblematic of the support Clinton received from the entertainment and technology industries and from the state's Latino leaders. In the week before the Super Tuesday contests, they pushed her message from the opulent ballrooms of San Francisco to the Mexican tiendas of East Los Angeles, working 20-hour days to combat Obama's accelerating popularity. But as Reiner watched the two candidates take the stage to a standing ovation, he couldn't help but wonder: Would their work prove powerful enough to stop Obama?

With moviemaking slowed by the Hollywood writers' strike, Reiner had made campaigning his full-time job. He often sat in a leather chair in his office, under posters of his movies "A Few Good Men" and "The Princess Bride," and made fundraising calls for Clinton. He had donated money to every Democratic presidential candidate in this election cycle, but after deciding to support Clinton, he held a $500,000 fundraiser at his house and filmed a two-minute video for her Web site that has been viewed almost 1 million times.

Reiner considers Clinton most prepared to navigate bureaucracy -- a sense she reinforced for him with a strong performance at the Kodak Theatre. Afterward, he pulled her aside to congratulate her.

"She was sky-high, more up than I'd ever seen her," Reiner said. "She knew she'd done well.

"I was the one feeling like a nervous wreck. I mean, you're watching this whole thing unfold, and it's basically coming down to a coin toss after all of this work."

'I'm In. And I'd Love Some Help'

For Amy Rao and Susie Tompkins Buell, the work started with an unexpected phone call from Clinton on a lazy Sunday morning in January 2007. The two friends and multimillionaires were reveling in one of their frequent retreats to Buell's 47 private acres tucked against Golden Gate National Park in Bolinas, Calif. They liked to meet at the secluded property when they wanted to escape. Just in case outsiders did try to disturb this tiny community 20 miles north of San Francisco, locals had removed all road signs so nobody could find it.

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