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Estee Greif is given a Hillary button from campaign volunteers Susan Schaffer, left, and Joan Hinckely in Menlo Park, Calif., on Sunday, Feb. 3, 2008. (Mathew Sumner/San Mateo County Times)
Local Democrats eagerly observed and participated in the fight for their party's presidential nomination over the weekend, gripped by the excitement that comes with California's newfound relevance to the national campaign.

Democratic insider Joe Cotchett, a partner in the Burlingame law firm of Cotchett, Pitre and McCarthy, said he hasn't seen a presidential campaign generate this much fervor in the Bay Area in 40 years.

"The only other campaign that I was involved in that came close to this was Bobby Kennedy's run in California for thepresidency (in 1968)," said Cotchett, a longtime friend and advocate of former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who swung his support to Illinois Sen. Barack Obama after Edwards dropped out of the race last week.

The Democratic primary is not the only issue on Tuesday's ballot. County voters will be faced with seven state propositions, including four Indian gaming compacts, and four local measures, three of which would boost school funding.

The leading contenders for the Republican nomination, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, will also be competing for California's delegates. But in heavily Democratic San Mateo County, the neck-and-neck battle between Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton is the focus of Super Tuesday.

A Rasmussen Reports survey released Jan. 30 and conducted before Edwards ended his campaign showed that Obama had narrowed Clinton's lead in California to three percentage points, with Clinton ahead 43 to 40 percent.


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Both campaigns held major events in the Bay Area over the weekend. Clinton attended rallies Friday in San Francisco and San Jose. Massachusetts senators Ted Kennedy and John Kerry campaigned for Obama in Oakland and San Francisco, while Obama's wife Michelle stopped by San Jose on Sunday .

On Saturday morning, about 20 Obama volunteers, including former San Mateo City Councilwoman Sue Lempert, gathered at Island Java Coffee Shop on B Street in San Mateo before heading out to canvass neighborhoods in Millbrae, San Bruno and San Mateo.

Assemblyman Gene Mullin, D-San Mateo, greeted the crowd, which was a mix of young and old, from high school students to Baby Boomers.

Mullin staffer Sarah Phelps, regional field organizer for the Obama campaign, said it was the campaign's third canvass of California's 12th congressional district, which includes Pacifica, San Mateo and South San Francisco.

The Clinton campaign appears to be somewhat less visible in San Mateo County. Clinton has offices in San Francisco, Palo Alto and San Jose, but none in the county, unlike Obama, who has an office in South San Francisco.

Representatives for the Clinton campaign were unable to confirm whether the campaign has sent volunteers door-to-door on the Peninsula, but the campaign has dispatched boosters to Burlingame to interact with merchants and shoppers.

Patricia Park, deputy communications director for Clinton's California campaign, said most of the campaign's mobilization efforts statewide have consisted of making phone calls.

Obama volunteers are working the phones as well. On Jan. 26, volunteers across the state placed more than 220,000 calls to registered voters, said spokesman Bobby Gravitz.

Peninsula politicians are split between the candidates. Rep. Tom Lantos, D-San Mateo, endorsed Clinton, while Rep. Anna Eschoo, D-Palo Alto, supports Obama. Former state Sen. Jackie Speier, the favorite to replace Lantos next year, backs Clinton, whereas Mullin and state Sen. Leland Yee are pushing for Obama.

Cotchett said the fact that Eshoo and East Bay Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, have gotten behind Obama could be significant, because both are close to Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, the speaker of the House of Representatives. Pelosi has remained neutral.

Eshoo said she finds Obama's message optimistic and inspiring in a way that reminds her of President John F. Kennedy.

"It's a very important ingredient in leadership," Eshoo said. "I know from my own life how transformational a leader can be."

Of California's two senators, Diane Feinstein has endorsed Clinton, while Barbara Boxer has decided to remain neutral. Feinstein said last year in a statement that she thinks Clinton is best equipped to bring about change in Washington. 

"Hillary Clinton, I believe, has the experience, the heart and the strength to be a great American president," Feinstein said.

Some county voters are still making up their minds. San Mateo resident Ahmet Eracar, 66, said he is leaning toward Obama, because his ideas seem "more do-able than ideas from Hillary."

Other Peninsula residents are less enthusiastic about the race. Catherine Hunter, 53, said choosing between candidates is "like picking your poison." The Los Gatos resident said she follows the campaign but doesn't plan to vote.

Both Clinton and Obama are fighting for former Edwards backers, locally and nationally. Edwards won the first-ever San Mateo County Democratic Presidential Straw Poll in October.

Millbrae Mayor Gina Papan, a Clinton supporter, said the increasing number of residents who vote by mail means that, even though he dropped out of the race, Edwards is still likely to get some votes.

"I spoke to some people last night who had already voted for Edwards and were a little annoyed," Papan said Friday. "So I'll be curious to see what number that comes out to in this race."

A shade more than 60,000 people had sent in their ballots as of Friday, according to the county elections office. County Elections Manager David Tom said he anticipates that overall voter turnout will be as high as 60 percent.

Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California in San Francisco, said the institute's surveys show that California's voters are following this year's primary more closely than those in 2000 and 2004.

With California's primary having been moved up to Feb. 5, giving the state a major stake in Super Tuesday, voters feel as though they're part of something historic, said Baldassare, who compared the level of interest in Tuesday's election to the excitement surrounding the gubernatorial recall election in 2003.

Then, as now, voters felt "their vote would really count and they'd make history," Baldassare said.

Staff writer Aaron Kinney can be reached at (650) 348-4302 or at akinney@bayareanewsgroup.com. MediaNews correspondent Julia Bynum contributed to this story.