California's high-stakes elections go down to wire

LOS ANGELES Sun Oct 31, 2010 9:19am EDT

Supporters listen to U.S. President Barack Obama speak at Democratic campaign rally at University of Southern California in Los Angeles October 22, 2010. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Supporters listen to U.S. President Barack Obama speak at Democratic campaign rally at University of Southern California in Los Angeles October 22, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - It's no coincidence that President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton visited California university campuses during the final weeks of the 2010 midterm election.

With Obama still fairly popular in the Golden State despite the beating his approval rating has taken elsewhere, Democrats say turning out the young California voters who helped him win in 2008 election is essential to carrying the midterm U.S. Senate and governor's races.

"If everybody who fought for change in 2008 turns out this time, we will win this election," Obama told some 30,000 students and supporters during a rally for incumbent Senator Barbara Boxer and gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown at the University of Southern California.

There's a lot at stake in traditionally Democratic California: the race between Boxer and her Republican rival, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, is seen by party insiders as critical to holding onto their Senate majority.

Democrats also have a chance to reclaim the governor's seat being vacated by Arnold Schwarzenegger, although that means taking over a financially broken and politically gridlocked state.

And there are two ballot measures with far-reaching implications: a challenge to a global warming law intended to be a model for the world and a proposal to be the first U.S. state to legalize marijuana.

"It's not enough to have voted for a new president if you won't help him govern and stick behind the members of Congress who stood by him," Clinton said during an appearance at the University of California Los Angeles. "I'm pleading with you, go out and tell everyone who is not here tonight that any college student in the state of California that doesn't vote in this election is committing malpractice on your own future."

Polls show Brown, the state's attorney general and former governor, with a lead over his Republican rival, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman. She has spent $140 million of her own money in the most expensive governor's race.

Boxer, a leading liberal in the Senate and champion of Obama's agenda, has a slight edge over Fiorina in their fight for the seat Boxer has held for three terms.

WILL THE ENTHUSIASM CARRY OVER?

"It is crucial that they get out the first-time 2008 voters because they were a critical part of the coalition that elected Barack Obama, and other segments of that coalition don't appear to be as enthusiastic as they were in 2008," said USC political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, who attended both rallies.

Bebitch Jeffe said the students were fired up by Obama and Clinton's star power, but cautioned that Boxer and Brown should not count on that energy carrying over to the voting booth.

"The reality I saw at UCLA and USC was that the audience was there more to see Bill Clinton at UCLA, and more to see Barack Obama at USC, and that will not necessarily translate into getting out and voting for other candidates," she said.

Keira Rogers, an accounting major who attended the USC event, went even further, saying she had voted for Obama in 2008 but probably wouldn't again.

"I knew he wasn't that experienced but I thought he would do better than he has," Rogers said. "He's not living up to my expectations."

Democratic operatives hope a ballot measure that would legalize marijuana in California will lure young voters to the polls benefiting Brown and Boxer.

But Proposition 19, which would make California the first U.S. state to legalize possession and sale of marijuana, was trailing in the polls, despite supporters' claims that a tax on pot sales could help bail out the cash-strapped state.

Voters are also leaning against Proposition 23, which would suspend the state's landmark climate law until unemployment in the state, currently in the double digits, falls to 5.5 percent or less for four straight quarters.

The defeat of Prop 23 would be a boon to Democrats and Obama, who have held up California's 2006 climate law as a model for a low-carbon economy. Congressional Democrats have failed to pass similar federal legislation.

(Editing by Mary Milliken and Stacey Joyce)

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