Thursday, March 8, 2007 | Barack Obama made a nice showing on his first swing through Southern California, raising an estimated $500,000 in San Diego and a cool $1.3 million in Los Angeles, thanks mostly to a Spielberg-Geffen-Katzenberg fund-raiser, which brought out the stars. You might say California was Obama’s for the asking.

But then, Al Gore won an Oscar and a huge ovation, and you could see Hollywood dreaming of a comeback movie with Gore as the star and Obama in the supporting role.

Obama is a phenomenon. Every election cycle brings its shooting stars — politicians who rise brilliantly only to fade in the snowy drizzles of Iowa and New Hampshire or fizzle out in the swamps of South Carolina. But Obama, helped by a political conjuncture as rare as the man himself, shows no sign of fizzling. He is rising steadily in the polls.

It’s not every campaign where the two leading Democrats are a woman and an African-American, and if that’s not enough they are running against a Republican party reeling from a failed presidency and a strong anti-war movement. Anti-war movements have a way of producing big surprises — like Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy knocking President Johnson out of the race in 1968.

Hillary Clinton hits Southern California later this month and may well surpass Obama’s fund-raising totals despite the insults leveled at her and her husband by David Geffen, one of Hollywood’s highest rollers. Clinton leads all other Democrats in the polls, though she does worse than her rivals when matched up against the leading Republicans, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain.

Beyond Obama’s unique background — an African-American not descended from slaves — it’s his position on Bush’s war that gets the most attention. The other leading Democrats, all of them U.S. senators in 2002, supported Bush (though all wish they hadn’t), and are finding it hard to escape blame for a failed war.

As an Illinois state senator, Obama opposed the war his rivals supported. “Even a successful war against Iraq,” he said, “will require an occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences.” It’s that prescient Chicago speech in 2002 that puts him in the catbird seat today.

Working against both Obama and Clinton is the stark fact that since the South took control of the Republican Party in the late 1960s, the only Democrats to win the popular presidential vote have hailed from the South: Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Northern Democrats have had no trouble winning the party’s nomination, but turn into Republican cannon-fodder in November. The list is long: Humphrey, McGovern, Mondale, Dukakis, Kerry.

In principle, that gives John Edwards, of North Carolina, the edge in 2008, especially since the Republicans find themselves in a similar position to 1976 — a discredited party with no clear heir apparent. McCain might have been the man, but in these anti-war times he has crucified himself on the Iraq war as thoroughly as Bush.

Some of the applause thundered over Gore at the Oscars may have been recognition that as a Southerner, he might be the Democrats’ best chance next year. Some of it may also have been our sense of fairness. Grover Cleveland, another Democrat who won the presidential vote but was ambushed by the electors (in 1888), got revenge four years later, beating the Republican who stole the election from him, Benjamin Harrison.

(The electoral vote — there is no such thing as an electoral “college” — exists because in the 1780s the Founders did not believe communication, transportation and tabulation were advanced enough to elect a president popularly. None of those 18th Century inadequacies exists today.)

To the chagrin of Hollywood scriptwriters, Gore insists he has “no plans to become a candidate for office again.” That means Democrats will likely nominate one of the three front-runners: a northern woman, a northern black and a Southerner out of office. Gore is not high in the polls, and it seems unlikely he could pull a Bobby Kennedy and wait until after the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries to get into the race.

But if Hollywood — from whence $33.1 million in funds to federal candidates and parties flowed in 2004 — thought there was a chance for Gore to become the first president with an Oscar (Ronald Reagan never even came close), one doubts whether it would have been quite so enthusiastic for Obama, the phenomenon. That enthusiasm showed not just in the star-studded dinner at Geffen’s home, with nice checks from George Clooney, Barbra Streisand, Eddie Murphy and others, but in the extraordinary insults dished out by Geffen to Hillary Clinton.

The insults were a rude surprise (and pretty stupid for a party fund-raiser) not just because he’d been close to the Clintons while Bill Clinton was president, but because Hillary Clinton has a healthy lead in the polls and may well turn out to be the party’s candidate. In the latest Washington Post-ABC poll (conducted, Feb. 28), Clinton had 36 percent; Obama, 24 percent; Gore, 14 percent, and Edwards, 14 percent. In California, however, the latest poll gives Clinton only a 3 point lead over Obama.

Obama is closing the gap, persuading ever more voters that, black northerner or not, he may be the party’s best hope to bring the country together and beat the Republicans next year — even in the South. Harold Ford Jr. won 48 percent of the vote last November in Tennessee, a state that has never had a black senator.

Even without the South, Obama could win just by holding the states John Kerry won last November and adding one more — Ohio. Though Hillary Clinton leads in the polls, my sense is that the nomination is Obama’s to lose.

James O. Goldsborough has written on foreign affairs for four decades, both from the United States and abroad, where he worked as a foreign correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune, International Herald Tribune and Newsweek magazine for 14 years, reporting from more than 40 countries. Visit his website here. Submit a letter to the editor here.

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