Obama pulls even in California

LOS ANGELES — The Democratic race is in a dead heat in California, the most important and competitive contest on Super Tuesday, an indication the nomination battle will stretch far beyond tomorrow.

Sen. Barack Obama got a surprise boost yesterday when Maria Shriver, married to Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said she was supporting the senator from Illinois.

An already excited crowd of Obama supporters here at UCLA for an event with Oprah Winfrey exploded into ear-splitting cheers when Michelle Obama announced that her husband was getting the endorsement from California’s first lady.

“If Barack Obama was a state, he’d be California,” Mrs. Shriver said, ticking off the reasons: “Diverse,” “open,” “smart,” “independent,” “bucks tradition,” “innovative,” “inspiring,” “dreamer,” “leader.”

She stressed the endorsement wasn’t because she is friends with Miss Winfrey and related to the Kennedy family members who also backed Mr. Obama. She said she’d just made up her mind and rushed to the event in such a hurry, she didn’t bother to brush her hair.

“California has a moment. …We can lead this country,” she said. “Remember that so goes California, so goes the nation.”

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who still leads the polls nationally and in many of the 22 states that vote tomorrow, was aiming to nab the endorsement of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. Former President Bill Clinton watched last night’s Super Bowl with Mr. Richardson in hopes of winning him over.

The backing of Mr. Richardson, who ended his bid to be the first Hispanic president last month, would help Mrs. Clinton shore up her already strong showing among Hispanic voters in key Super Tuesday states.

Mrs. Clinton of New York prepared to reach millions of people at once with a nationally televised town hall while Mr. Obamaspent big bucks with a Super Bowl ad aimed at young voters in states that vote tomorrow and in later contests.

While both candidates attracted record crowds all over the country, Mrs. Clinton, campaigning in Missouri and Minneapolis yesterday, said she is more “tested” than Mr. Obama. She said she has withstood Republican attacks for years while Mr. Obama, serving his first term in the Senate, is still an unknown quantity.

“My opponent hasn’t had to go through that kind of baptism by fire,” she told a St. Louis rally. “This is going to be open season once again, and we need to nominate someone with the experience and the fortitude and the know-how to take whatever they send our way and send it right back.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Clinton visited four churches in mostly black sections of Los Angeles. The trip was widely seen as a bid to smooth over perceptions that he had injected race into last month’s Democratic primary in South Carolina, which Mr. Obama won handily.

Mr. Clinton never mentioned Mr. Obama by name when he spoke for about 20 minutes at the City of Refuge Church in Gardena and said both candidates make the country proud with the potential to make history. “I’m not against anybody,” he said.

City officials in Wilmington, Del., said Mr. Obama drew about 20,000 people at a rally at the Caesar Rodney Square yesterday. They said it was the largest event in recent memory, exceeding the number that turned out for New Year’s Eve festivities.

Both Mr. Obama and his wife offered his vision for America in campaign speeches.

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