Before the Hillary Rodham Clinton/Barack Obama debate began last week at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, a tribal leader spoke in his native tongue to bless the crowd.
And when California first lady Maria Shriver made her surprise endorsement of Obama at UCLA on Sunday afternoon — joining cousin Caroline Kennedy and best friend Oprah Winfrey on stage — she invoked a Hopi prayer that goes: “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”
With the California primary and other Super Tuesday state results less than 48 hours away, the Sunday event was also a prayer — namely for undecided women to sign on with the Obama campaign.
A Field Poll released Sunday called the race a tossup, with Clinton at 36 percent and Obama at 34 percent among likely voters in Tuesday's primary. However, the poll also showed a distinct gender gap, with women favoring Clinton by 13 points and men favoring Obama by the same margin.
Since around 55 percent of Democratic primary voters are expected to be female, Obama's campaign expects Winfrey's popularity (if not sainthood) among women can narrow the gap.
Just as Bill Clinton went to four (count them, four) African-American churches in Southern California on Sunday morning to help shore up the black vote for his wife, the UCLA gathering brought together Michelle Obama with Kennedy, Winfrey, Shriver and even Stevie Wonder in a lovefest hoping to pump up the women’s vote.
Spotted in the crowd of (mostly female) UCLA students were several university professors, a handful of state and local politicians, a few showbiz execs including Sony’s Michael Lynton and David Kissinger (Henry’s son), along with journos such as The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd (gliding around the press area in a wicked pair of strapped black boots).
In her speech before the not-quite-capacity crowd at Pauley Pavilion, Winfrey discussed how people had dissed her for being a “traitor” to her gender and said she was voting for Obama because he was black.
Regarding the former charge, she declared, “The truth is I’m a free woman, a free woman, a free woman, and being free means you get to think for yourself.” Concerning the charge of racial bias, she told her detractors, “Don’t play me small. ... I’m not voting for him because he’s black [but] because he’s brilliant.”
Winfrey implored women who already planned to vote for someone else (read: Hillary) that they had “the right to change [their] mind.”
Still, she marveled that the Democratic campaign has a woman and a black man as its two front-runners.
“We have won the struggle,” she declared in her best preacher’s tone, adding that the two candidates are “a declaration of victory for women’s rights and civil rights and now we are free – free from the constructions of gender and race,” meaning “for the first time we can vote what we believe.”
Shriver’s surprise appearance came just days after her husband, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, threw his support behind GOP candidate John McCain.
Entering to rousing applause and foot-stomping cheers, Shriver didn’t mention the spousal split, nor the break in the Kennedy family which finds Caroline, Teddy, Ethel and others backing Obama while others including Robert F. Jr. support Clinton.
But Shriver acknowledged that her decision to come to the UCLA rally was very last-minute. (She was dressed in a riding outfit, having just joined her daughter at a horse show.) Shriver also said she was there of her own accord, not simply because she was cousins with Caroline or best friends with Winfrey.
“I’m here today as a woman and as a Californian,” she said, repeating that this election is not just a special moment for the Democratic Paty but “a moment for the state.” Ending her speech with the Hopi prayer, she also reminded the audience that “as goes California, so goes the nation.”