Not much is predictable in the wild next few days, but Angelenos can almost take it to the bank that they will see Hillary Clinton standing next to California's A-list Latino leaders, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, while Barack Obama — besides invoking the Kennedys at every possible juncture — will certainly seek camera time with the lesser-known Latino leaders who back him.

Endorsements, ethnic or otherwise, have very little proven effect on what voters decide to do. But now, with Obama assured of days of free media coverage of Ted Kennedy and Caroline Kennedy's blessings, the Latino endorsements that the two Democratic front-runners have won become far more critical.

A nasty fight over California's Latino voters could break out, with Los Angeles at its epicenter. In a city where Cain-and-Abel undercurrents in Latino urban politics often play a bigger role than any real policy differences, things could get far uglier than the eyebrow-raising racial overtones after the South Carolina vote on January 26.

Latinos, who through last week have been some of Clinton's most ardent supporters, are expected to make up roughly one-quarter of California's vote. In Nevada and Florida, the first primaries involving any appreciable number of Latino voters, they overwhelmingly chose Clinton. And in Nevada, this despite a big push for Obama by the leadership of the Culinary Workers Union.

For Clinton, who, according to polls just a few days ago, was ahead of Obama by a landslide in California, Villaraigosa, Nunez and the many other Latino state legislators, Congress members and mayors who endorsed her become crucial wallpaper if she's to stop Latino voters from migrating to Obama.

For Obama, who has earned the backing of California Latino B-listers, including state legislators Gil Cedillo and Gloria Romero and Congresswoman Linda Sanchez, and who only recently won his first A-list Latino elected official, Congressman Xavier Becerra, those endorsements suddenly take on tremendous potential importance.

Strategists expect Clinton's huge lead among Latinos to drop in California — a natural outcome as Latino voters learn more about Obama, who many did not even know is from Illinois until very recently. Growing familiarity with a likable candidate always results in some switching.

That means the Los Angeles mayor, the speaker of the Assembly, and even several lesser-known Latino state senators and mayors of smaller cities will be called upon by Clinton to do whatever is necessary — calling in favors, fighting for TV face time — to keep their constituents from choosing Obama. And Villaraigosa, who has been on the road with Clinton and was singled out for praise by the New York senator in Nevada this month — she handed him a campaign shirt as both grinned for cameras in Las Vegas — suddenly becomes the leader of her Latino shock troops, rather than a guy with great teeth bragging to out-of-staters, “I've been a pretty good mayor.”

“You have to look at the images on the TV news as key,” says unaffiliated Democratic strategist Kam Kuwata. If Obama's glowing imagery continues through the week and until February 5, Kuwata says, “[he] will probably win the campaign. This is about dominating the news cycles with positive stories, and he's winning the day on that, and people in California are voting by mail right now.”

“To give you my chickenshit prediction,” says unaffiliated Democratic strategist Bill Carrick, “I think it will be very competitive.”

“I wonder if Obama's camp
understands all the hatreds among Latino leaders that he is stepping into here,” muses longtime Democratic Party activist and former L.A. school board member David Tokofsky.

Few political observers were surprised, for example, by Congressman Becerra's decision to back Obama. He may prefer Obama over Clinton, but the larger story is that Becerra, embittered about losing to Villaraigosa in the mayoral race, has made something of a career doing the opposite of Villaraigosa. There are Becerra camps and Villaraigosa camps, and anyone thinking of running on the Eastside is pressed to announce fealty.

Meanwhile, the roughly two dozen Latino California mayors lined up behind Clinton might actually support her, but if you're a small-fry politico hoping to run for higher office, you don't want to anger Villaraigosa and Nunez.

So while the candidates grab Latino endorsements in hopes of building goodwill with iffy voters, the endorsers are up to something different. A former Gray Davis adviser explains: “What you're seeing is Latino elected leaders dividing up based on their calculation that either Hillary or Obama can provide them a Rolodex for their future runs for office, and on the second calculation that they can get a place at the table now, get public exposure now, during a rare time of national exposure.”

In Villaraigosa's case, he became Hillary's top California campaign figurehead early on in a political mutual-aid pact that goes back many years and involves the Clintons, billionaire Democrat Ron Burkle and billionaire Democrat Eli Broad. Villaraigosa was outgoing California Assembly speaker in 2000, when Broad spearheaded and brought to Los Angeles the Democratic National Convention. With the help of Villaraigosa and others, the Clintons did everything possible to help Al Gore get the nomination — and he did.

Villaraigosa's longtime friend and Democratic political operative Lydia Camarillo was the convention's CEO; she jumped from that high-profile job to immediately working for Villaraigosa on his unsuccessful 2001 mayoral campaign. Now, Camarillo is vice president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, currently touting a $35 Villaraigosa bobble-head doll that he “graciously” allowed. The group has been criticized for being an arm of the Democratic get-out-the-vote effort: While it signs up independents and Republicans, the majority of its work goes into signing up Latino Democrats. And Latino Democrats heavily favor Hillary Clinton.

Then, in 2002, Burkle, a big Villaraigosa backer, handed Bill Clinton a much-discussed and murky job as “adviser” to his multinational Yucaipa Companies, which The Wall Street Journal several days ago reported is about to turn Clinton into a very rich man, with a probable payout of $20 million when Clinton severs his financial ties with Yucaipa to avoid possible blow-back on his wife.

With so many favors owed back and forth between this circle of L.A. power players, City Hall observers were not surprised when Broad was able to push through his pet Grand Avenue project downtown — with Villaraigosa's blessing. Now, each of these powerful allies has a role to play on February 5.

“It's a giant circle linking Hillary to Villaraigosa to Burkle,” says Tokofsky.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, he notes. If Obama had any history in California, he would be doing much the same. But he hasn't got the personal roots to land the top echelon of well-known California Latinos as background for his TV shots.

Personal pleas from noteworthy Latinos who are not elected officials will also become part of the hype as Hillary Clinton tries to avoid a so-so win in California (when a landslide was expected), and Obama tries to maintain his momentum. Among those nonelected figures, Clinton will trot out the rousing support she earned from labor icon Dolores Huerta and the United Farm Workers; Obama will push his support from Maria Elena Durazo, head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.

One labor insider says the potential for ugliness is “high,” especially because Durazo announced her surprise support for Obama without consulting the huge unions that make up the County Federation of Labor. Media outlets gave the misimpression that Durazo was speaking for labor — which by and large supports Clinton. Durazo is backing Obama on a personal level, not on behalf of labor, and has temporarily left her post to work at Obama's L.A. headquarters.

Obama's campaign spokeswoman says Durazo is a big supporter, “working here at headquarters from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.” But in the backbiting world of Latino kingmaking, it's widely known that Durazo is furious with Clinton backer Nunez for his support of the expansion of nonunion Indian casinos (in the form of propositions 94 through 97 on the February 5 ballot). Her jump into Obama's camp is seen by some as payback to Nunez.

No wonder campaign observers are suggesting Angelenos fasten their seat belts while the Democrats get down and dirty. Yet the moment either Clinton or Obama is chosen as the nominee, all the warring Latino leaders will immediately endorse that candidate. Because after all the name-calling, Villaraigosa, Nunez, Becerra and the others will be expected by the party to join forces in the Southwestern states of Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, doing whatever possible to stop those swing states from going Republican in November and handing the White House to the GOP nominee.

“No matter what you hear now, it's all about later on,” says Tony Quinn, co-publisher of the California Target Book, which tracks California races. “And for the Democrats, 'later on' means the Southwest in November.”

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