LOS ANGELES -- Sen. Hillary Clinton is relying on the big Latino vote as her firewall to prevent losing the California Democratic primary Feb. 5, the most important of 22 states contested on Mega Tuesday. But that reliance, say both pro-Clinton and anti-Clinton Democrats, is fraught with peril for the Democratic Party's coalition by threatening to alienate its essential African-American component.
Clinton's double-digit lead in California polls over Sen. Barack Obama is misleading. Subtract a Latino voting bloc whose dependability to show up Election Day always has been shaky, and Clinton is no better than even in the state, with Obama gaining. To encourage this brown firewall, the Clinton campaign may be drifting into encouragement of brown vs. black racial conflict by condoning Latino racial hostility to the first African-American with a chance to become president.
Implications transcend California. The pugnacious campaign strategy of Bill and Hillary Clinton in forcefully identifying Obama as a black candidate spreads concern that they could be risking continued massive, unconditional support for Democrats by African-Americans. The long-range situation is so disturbing that some Clinton supporters talk about an outcome they rejected not long ago: a Clinton-Obama ticket.
Exit polls of Obama's unexpected landslide victory over Clinton in Saturday's South Carolina primary reflected white, in addition to black, disgust with the Clintons playing the race card. It should signal caution for them in California, where the Latino vote adds another component to the lethal racial equation.
Experienced California Democratic politicians doubt the validity of Clinton's double-digit polling lead in the state. At the heart of Obama's support are upper-income Democrats (in exceptional supply here) and young voters whose intentions are difficult to predict. Will the state's huge, currently passive college campuses erupt in an outpouring of Obama voters?
Another problem for pollsters is a California peculiarity. A registered independent who shows up at a polling place Feb. 5 and asks for a Republican ballot will be told, sorry, but the Republican primary is for registered Republicans only. But the voter then may take a ballot of the more permissive Democratic Party. How many will do this and then vote for Obama? The polls cannot predict.
Clinton's 39 percent against Obama's 27 percent in California's Field Poll released last week provides much less certainty than a 12-percentage margin normally would. With Clinton falling and Obama rising, it compares with her 40-point lead six months ago.