Bill Clinton coaxes voters into windowless van

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Bill Clinton always excelled at telling stories. Facing a tough question from a somber-looking vet? Tell a story. Bleary-eyed after hitting several California cities in a single day campaigning on behalf of your wife? Tell a story. Trying to convince undecided voters your family isn't an inhuman band of relentless over-achievers that hasn't experienced what most Americans might consider a normal day in decades? Tell a story.

Joined by Gavin Newsom, that's what Bill Clinton did again for voters yesterday at the Ferry Building in San Francisco. Told a bunch of stories.

What didn’t make sense was why Bill Clinton spent so much time on Monday canvassing California when Hillary’s people have acted as if the state was a lock. By the way, who are the badasses working for her that so brilliantly managed to make C.W. Nevius the vehicle of a localized, anti-Obama whisper campaign? Those bastards are earning their keep.

Hillary's latest commercial

The state seemed like it was in Hillary's hands just a few short weeks ago and her camp acted confident that it owned the place. But when we gathered around a laptop with Oakland Tribune political reporter Josh Richman before Newsom hit the stage, her lead over Obama was swimming in the margin of error, according to Realclearpolitics.com.

Gallup gave her 20 percentage points on Jan. 20. By Feb. 2, it was just two. The prominent Field Poll put them in a statistical dead heat here. There were about 250 people at the Ferry Building rally, including the 40 or so arranged on stage that looked like a much larger crowd through the viewfinders on the dozen or so television news cameras situated on a raised platform across from them.

To be sure, RCP still had her out front nationally, and several states gave her the lead individually, but the Wall Street Journal posted a story late Monday describing Barack Obama as perfectly capable financially and statistically of withstanding "the Clinton machine." Not to mention, California contains a crucially high volume of delegates, and there’s no winner-take-all for the Dems.

But Hillary's desperate for a win here, and it shows. A radio reporter sitting near us last night said Bill Clinton went on the air live at his station and at one point had grown perturbed with the questioner. We’re not even sure why, but if a politico with his stripes is unnerved by any small-time local radio reporter, something's not right.

Last night's event in San Francisco was part of several town hall meetings held by the Clinton campaign simultaneously nationwide and televised on the Web. It's telling that Bill ended his Cali excursion in the Bay Area, the Democratic stronghold where Hillary and Obama have traded swings for weeks and where both need to maintain control of the donor banks.

Newsom, long an understudy of Bill and backer of Hillary, couldn't have been a better choice for host considering his experience with town halls as an alternative to the visits voters asked him to make to the Board of Supervisors for question time, which, as we know, he refused to indulge.

The mayor invited the crowd to offer questions, and the best one by way of applause would be selected for presentation to Hillary along with the other participating cities later that night (after a brief speech from Bill timed perfectly for live reels on the 6 o'clock news).

And that's where Clinton's genius story-telling mattered most. The majority of the questions were no different and no more specific than anything we've heard for weeks:

"Why doesn't my insurance carrier cover more medical procedures?"

"How did we manage to infuriate so many people in the Middle East?"

"How can we refocus the attention of politicians on the forgotten middle class?"

Every American should be forced to take a small tutorial in asking questions of political candidates when they first fill out their voter registration forms. Ninety percent of the questions asked last night were soft balls with loads of wiggle room that the candidates could answer in their sleep.

Obama's latest commercial

Except for one selected by the crowd to its immense credit. And it was a yes or no question asked first of Bill by a white-haired Vietnam veteran from San Mateo named Jack Harris:

"If elected president, will Hillary Clinton support mandatory funding levels for all Veterans Affairs programs?"

Bill’s response? He told of meeting veterans of the war on terror who needed prosthetic limbs. He recalled from his time as Arkansas governor the stories of Americans who served in Vietnam and returned feeling alienated by the nation they’d served. He even recounted how his daughter, Chelsea, was friends with a Marine who was also a liberal Jew. Such a rare thing to behold, he joked.

But he never got around to actually answering the question. Few could have expected less; lawmakers loathe funding mandates, because they strip away their control over the budget process. It’s one of the chief reasons, right or wrong, given for why California is facing a budget crisis.

So we have to admit we were surprised when later last night, Hillary declared outright that she would invite funding mandates for the VA. The Clinton camp later declared that 250,000 viewers logged onto the Web to watch the town hall presentation. We also saw for the first time what we have to admit was a really damn good commercial from the Clinton people. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Cesar L. Chavez both described how their fathers were representatives of the “most disenfranchised of our society,” and today, they proclaimed, that voice is represented by Hillary. It was a solid response to Obama’s compelling commercial filled with loads of young, celebrity faces.

But there are no assurances later when it comes down to it, Hillary Clinton won't just respond to a tough question by telling us all a nice, little story.

When we logged on this morning, Obama was out front in California by the tiniest of margins. As we post this, nobody here in the newsroom is prepared to declare a winner. No doubt, there’s more fun ahead tonight.

Hillary last night on David Letterman

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