Backroom Primary: Bill Clinton Courts California Former president Bill Clinton on Sunday spoke to democratic activists at the state's annual party convention. But his real audience was a small number of undeclared superdelegates who may determine the presidential nominee for the Democratic Party.
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Backroom Primary: Bill Clinton Courts California

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Backroom Primary: Bill Clinton Courts California

Backroom Primary: Bill Clinton Courts California

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News of the past week's fighting reached the United States in the middle of the presidential campaign. All three remaining candidates know the direction of the war could affect the election this fall. Right now, though, two Democratic candidates have a more immediate concern, and you could see it yesterday when former President Bill Clinton turned up at a state party convention in San Jose, California.

He addressed about 2,000 Democrats, but his target audience was much smaller - around two dozen party activists who are undeclared superdelegates, among those likely to decide the party's nomination. We'll be looking at those important people in the days ahead as part of a special NPR series called The Backroom Primary.

And we begin with NPR's Ina Jaffe.

INA JAFFE: Bill Clinton's speech came at an awkward moment in this campaign - as if there's any other kind anymore. With Hillary Clinton trailing in pledged delegates, prominent Democrats have called on her to drop out of the race. She's responded by telling the Washington Post this weekend that she'll take her fight for the nomination all the way to the convention in August, and was left to her husband to convince California Democrats that was a good thing.

President BILL CLINTON: Don't you let anybody tell you that somehow we are weakening the Democratic Party by telling the people in Pennsylvania and North Carolina and Indiana and Kentucky and West Virginia and Montana and South Dakota and Oregon and Puerto Rico that they count too. We are strengthening the Democratic Party. Chill out. We're going to win this election if we just chill out and let everybody have their say.

JAFFE: The former president's speech started typically late, but he had a really good excuse. He met first with many of the California superdelegates who have yet to declare their allegiance to either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. No pressure or anything. Many of them have already met Bill Clinton or talked to him on the phone. These days they talk to a lot of people, says Crystal Strait, head of the California Young Democrats.

Ms. CRYSTAL STRAIT (California Young Democrats): I had a great conversation with Senator Clinton. I have spoken with her daughter, I have spoken with - Senator Daschle called me on behalf of Senator Obama.

JAFFE: And it's nothing but talk, say superdelegates. In case you were wondering, they don't get flowers or chocolates or Lakers tickets or anything else, says Steve Navarro.

Mr. STEVE NAVARRO (Democratic National Committee): I couldn't get anybody to buy me a beer last night, if that's an indicator. I mean, you know, that didn't even happen.

JAFFE: These superdelegates are truly undecided, each for a different reason. Young Democrat leader Crystal Strait says she doesn't see her choice of candidate as a personal decision...

Ms. STRAIT: But it's about my judgment to weigh what's best for the youth in America, and I know that's at the end of the day how I'll make my decision.

JAFFE: Steven Navarro, who's on the Democratic National Committee, says he'll only go with the candidate who commits to a concrete plan for increasing outreach to Latinos.

Mr. NAVARRO: There's no reason for Latinos on the DNC to go to that convention to vote for a candidate until there's a strong commitment to what that candidate's going to do for us. And I'll tell you something, I'm willing to hold out until the third vote.

JAFFE: The idea that it would take three or more ballots at the Democratic Convention to nominate a candidate is an anathema to the party leadership. Chairman Howard Dean has asked superdelegates to make their decisions known by July 1. And Superdelegate Robert Big Red Renkin(ph) says Barack Obama told him that he doesn't want to wait that long.

Mr. ROBERT RENKINS (Superdelegate): He said that he wanted, for the good of the party, that we should come together like now.

JAFFE: So when was this conversation had with Barack Obama?

Mr. RENKINS: About two weeks ago.

JAFFE: But two days ago Obama says that Hillary Clinton should stay in the race as long as she wants. In San Jose yesterday, the uncommitted superdelegates we spoke with remained uncommitted, even after their private meeting with President Clinton. Crystal Strait said he didn't even seem to be pushing them that hard.

Ms. STRAIT: President Clinton was very focused on the fact that we have time and that there is a process.

JAFFE: And if a large block of superdelegates remain uncommitted, it could bolster Hillary Clinton's argument that she has a reason to fight on.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News, San Jose, California.

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