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.
The demographics are most important. Clinton has dramatically lost support among blacks, trailing Obama 58 percent to 24 percent. It is a virtual dead heat among white non-Hispanics, 32 percent to 30 percent. Therefore, the 12-point overall lead derives from a 59 percent to 19 percent Clinton edge among Latinos.
In California, the Latino vote is notoriously undependable in actually voting, especially when compared with African-Americans. How the Clinton campaign deals with Hispanic voters is a sensitive matter, but sensitivity never has been a hallmark of the Clinton style.
Insensitivity was reflected in a recent issue of the New Yorker, when Clinton's veteran Latino political operative Sergio Bendixen was quoted as saying, "The Hispanic voter -- and I want to say this very carefully -- has not shown a lot of willingness to support black candidates."
That brief quote from an obscure politician has generated shock and awe in Democratic circles. It comes close to validating the concern that the Clinton campaign is not only relying on a brown firewall built on an anti-black base, but is reinforcing it. A prominent Democrat who has not picked a candidate this year told me, "In any campaign I have been involved in, Bendixen would have been gone."
But not in Hillary Clinton's. During the Jan. 15 debate prior to the Nevada caucuses, where the Latino vote was important, NBC's Tim Russert read the Bendixen quote and asked Clinton, "Does that represent the view of your campaign?" Her response was chilling: "No, he was making a historical statement."
Asked whether Latinos will refuse to vote for him, Obama got a laugh when he replied: "Not in Illinois. They all voted for me."
But this is no laughing matter for Democrats. The Clintons are making a risky gamble that black voters will not be offended by Hillary Clinton attacking Obama for legally representing a Chicago slumlord or for clearly identifying him as the black candidate for president. They are betting that African-Americans will forget the slurs of January and loyally troop to polls in November.