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Picking those who pick the president

Sunday caucus for Democratic convention delegates is a high-stakes popularity contest, candidates say

This month, a slate of local Democrats have kicked off new campaigns — for themselves. They are vying for votes in Sunday's caucus to become district delegates to the Democratic National Convention, where the party's presidential candidate will be chosen this summer.

For Palo Altan Elspeth Farmer, a Barack Obama supporter who wants to be a delegate, the future of the entire presidential election is at stake. Sunday's voters must choose delegates able to bridge the Obama-Clinton divide at the convention in order to create a party strong enough to win the presidency, she said.

"We have to come out of that convention as united Democrats. If it's a good convention where people feel OK when they leave, the Democrats have a chance," Farmer said.

District-level delegates make up about half the delegates voting at the Democratic National Convention Aug. 25-28 in Denver. Populous California sends 503, more than any other state. Other delegates include at-large delegates often selected by district delegates, party leaders and elected officials, and add-on delegates usually selected by state committees.

Congressional District 14, which stretches from the northern Peninsula to the South Bay and includes Palo Alto, will send six delegates — three for Obama and three for Hillary Clinton. Proportions are based on results of the Feb. 5 primary. The Clinton-delegate caucus will be at Cubberley Community Center at 4000 Middlefield Road in Palo Alto. The Obama-delegate caucus will be at the Columbia Neighborhood Center at 739 Morse Ave., Sunnyvale.

Voting begins at 2 p.m. and is open to any registered Democrat or anyone who registers as a Democrat at the caucus, and participants must be in line to vote by 3 p.m.

There is no Republican caucus because the California party chapter awards three delegates to the district winner, rather than divvy up delegates proportionally.

Many running for district delegate are campaign volunteers already.

Their tactics to promote themselves — phone calls, e-mails and door-to-door outreach — are those they have long employed to campaign for "their" candidate.

For Farmer, it's a tricky situation. She wants to campaign for herself but doesn't want to divert energy that could be used to support Obama as the April 22 Pennsylvania primary looms closer.

"If I make it, great. But I can't devote an entire week of phone-banking that needs to be done for Pennsylvania," she said.

Her belief in the importance of a unified party convinced her it's worth running at all, she said. After speaking with many Clinton supporters, she understands their viewpoints. If Obama wins the nomination, she could help convince disappointed Clinton fans to unite with the pro-Obama camp at the convention, she said.

Clinton supporter Lorraine Hariton is also working on Obama-Clinton bridge-building — she hopes even pro-Obama friends turn out to vote for her, she said.

Unlike the February primary, Sunday's district-delegate caucus is not an Obama-versus-Clinton vote. Delegate proportions have been allotted to each candidate, so the only choice is whom to send. For Clinton, 26 hopefuls are competing for the three spots compared to 44 for Obama's three.

Hariton sent an Evite to her wide social network, hoping even friends who wouldn't otherwise bother voting in a caucus would show up to support her, she said.

The vote is akin to a popularity contest, according to Jim Thurber, a Los Altos resident who is running on a slate with Hariton, a Los Altos Hills resident, and Bruce Swenson of Palo Alto.

Thurber, a long-time Democratic volunteer, has been to two conventions, in 1996 and 2000.

"It's a question of who gets more friends to come to the caucus. You get all your friends and neighbors and relatives to come," he said.

Yet the question of who "deserves" to be a delegate — and attend a convention traditionally associated with lavish settings and elite networking — should be based entirely on hours logged volunteering, some argue.

Hariton has traveled around the country supporting Clinton, but not all delegate-hopefuls have dedicated such time.

Obama supporter Jay Jackman has volunteered for past campaigns — including local school-bond measures — but campaigned only moderately for Obama this time, he said. He initially supported John Edwards, turning to Obama only after Edwards dropped out in January.

Volunteers who've put in more time resent his candidacy — and said as much in an e-mail to a campaign leader that was eventually forwarded to him, he said.

Volunteer efforts are a legitimate consideration, but so is experience in campaign issues such as health care and legal justice, said Jackman, a psychiatrist and attorney.

For one candidate, experience includes penning pro-Clinton anthems. Palo Alto resident Gene Wang wrote "Hillary4U&Me," a song that spread through Internet blogs and was panned as too sappy-sweet.

Rather than discourage him, the negativity inspired him, Wang said. He wrote a second song, debuting "Hillary in the House" two weeks ago, and posted it on a Web page devoted to his candidacy in Sunday's caucus.

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