- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 4, 2007

Silicon Valley leaders whose endorsements have been key in past presidential races give Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton high marks, but say there is little to learn about her candidacy. Instead, they have bubbling curiosity about her fellow 2008 contender, Sen. Barack Obama.

“He’s a once-in-a-generation talent. He’s just the real deal,” said Jude Barry, longtime Silicon Valley political observer who founded Obama for America. “He’s not well known here but he will take off like a hot IPO.”

Translation: Local insiders who track stock deals and initial public offerings the way Washingtonians follow politics have growing interest in the Illinois Democrat. Many of them think Mr. Obama could be Silicon Valley’s next new thing.

Mrs. Clinton, New York Democrat, who spent time in the valley during her husband’s two terms as president, is a known commodity and is still the liberal Bay Area’s presumptive favorite. But in California’s innovation hotbed, investors, executives and valley politicians are always looking for new blood.

Santa Clara County Assessor Larry Stone has been a force in Democratic politics for decades, and prides himself on his early endorsement of Bill Clinton in 1990.

When former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner opted against running this cycle, Mr. Stone was left in what he describes as a “confusing dilemma.”

“In my younger days I was about ideology, now I am just about winning,” he said. “I like Hillary a lot and I know her the best of everybody, but I just question whether she can win.”

Mr. Obama is courting Mr. Stone, and asked him recently what it would take to “make this deal.”

It’s a good question for Mr. Stone, who says Mrs. Clinton would be a good president but concedes that probably isn’t enough to embrace her for 2008: “She clearly has it together but it just doesn’t seem to excite people.”

That sentiment echoes throughout the valley.

Mr. Barry, Howard Dean’s state director in California in 2004, started the Obama group without ever meeting the senator and raised $30,000 in a matter of hours.

“I was surprised at how easy it was, and it portends great things for him out here,” said Mr. Barry, once the spokesman for former San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales.

Given Mr. Obama’s anti-war stance and appeal to youth, Mr. Barry predicts the first-term senator will break all of Mr. Dean’s online fundraising records.

“Obama really has a buzz in the valley because he’s something new,” agreed Victor Arranaga, a longtime San Jose political fixture who works in government affairs for a major tech firm.

Mr. Obama got an early endorsement from former state Controller Steve Westly, a Democrat who made his name as an EBay leader.

In 1992, a group of Silicon Valley business executives from the world’s most powerful technology companies gathered at San Jose’s Tech Museum three weeks before the general election to endorse Mr. Clinton over an incumbent Republican president.

The CEOs of companies such as Hewlett Packard and Apple Computer — Republicans, Democrats and independents — said then they chose Mr. Clinton over George Bush because he would be better for economy and innovation.

The informal Silicon Valley group has become even more influential this cycle, with a wide-open field sending candidates flocking to the Bay Area for money and to prove their tech mettle.

Russell Hancock, CEO of Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network, said valley leaders are curious about Mr. Obama. “Folks are really interested to see what he is like. He hasn’t spent enough time out here yet,” he said.

Fueling the need for candidates to visit the valley is the likelihood California’s 2008 primaries will be moved from June to Feb 5. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger says he will sign a bill changing the date.

Former San Jose Mayor Tom McEnery, a Democrat, remembers when Apple’s John Sculley and HP’s John Young — lifelong Republicans — joined 30 fellow valley powerhouses to endorse Mr. Clinton.

“They were people who looked to accomplishment and to the future,” he said. “Since then, every presidential candidate makes a stop in Silicon Valley because they understand the future is being invented here every day. It’s an absolute necessity.”

This time around, the executives are equally interested in Republican presidential candidates.

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, announced recently that Cisco CEO John Chambers will serve as his campaign’s national co-chairman and as economic and technology adviser.

Mr. Chambers, a Republican, said Mr. McCain can “move America forward” because “he understands the value that technology contributes to economic prosperity and growth.”

Mr. McEnery called Mr. McCain “the type of independent with real appeal to the valley.”

Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani also has broad valley support, with many viewing him as a leader with centrist credentials.

Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina is no Silicon Valley favorite because of his ties to trial lawyers. “He’s not a good fit,” Mr. McEnery said.

“Trial lawyers are like poison,” agreed Mr. Stone.

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