STOCKTON -- Former President Clinton gave a speech Monday afternoon tailor-made for the Northern San Joaquin Valley on why voters should support his wife for the Democratic presidential nomination in today's Super Tuesday California primary.
Bill Clinton, raspy-voiced in the final push of the primary campaign, did not mention Sen. Barack Obama, whom polls have showed closing on Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in delegate-rich California.
Instead, in a 40-minute speech the former president emphasized his wife's ability to address the valley's housing crisis and her push for clean- energy jobs in rural areas. Those concepts played well to a boisterous crowd of about 4,000 at the University of the Pacific's Alex Spanos Center.
"Hillary's theory is that when you get in a hole, you stop digging," Clinton said. "That's what you want in a president."
Buoyed by cheering crowds and bolstered by more than $1.3 million a day in TV ads, Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton raced through the final hours of an unpredictable Super Tuesday campaign across 22 states. The Republican race turned negative on the eve of the busiest day in primary history.
Clinton and Obama agreed on one thing today - that the coast to coast balloting would not settle their pitched struggle for the Democratic presidential nomination. Republican contenders John McCain and Mitt Romney traded a last-minute flurry of elbow jabs.
An enormous cache of delegates was at stake Super Tuesday - not enough to clinch a nomination but plenty enough to mint a runaway favorite, or even two.
That seemed more likely on the Republican side, where McCain hoped to bury his chief opponent's presidential aspirations. But Romney put up a spirited fight in California, the day's biggest prize, and said a strong performance by him there would prove "the conservatives in our party are not at all comfortable with Senator McCain leading us."
In Stockton, Bill Clinton said that as president, his wife would push to freeze mortgage rates and foreclosures,and assist those who had made loan payments in good faith.
Such a plan, Clinton said, would cost $30 billion, but was the most aggressive plan any remaining candidate had proposed.
He tied global warming to a push for jobs in the valley's rural areas, saying that emphasizing solar, wind and other kinds of alternative energy would provide work for everyone from engineers to high school dropouts.
Clinton continually returned to a theme of describing what his wife would do as president as a contrast to the current President Bush.
"I guess it takes a Clinton to take up a Bush mess," he said, referring to his 1992 victory over the first President Bush. "She is the best candidate because she's a change maker."
Democratic Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani of Livingston and Lt. Gov. John Garamendi introduced Clinton, and Garamendi acknowledged in a small way the race's closeness in California by encouraging attendees to push their neighbors to the polls for Hillary Clinton.
"Who has a comprehensive health care plan for everyone?" Garamendi asked in a call-and-response used several times during the rally, with the crowd's emphatic response, "Hillary!"
Nationally, 22 states will vote for the Democratic nominee today, with the biggest delegate prize in California. New York, New Jersey, Illinois and several other populous states also vote.
In California, Democratic delegates are apportioned partly by the state's overall primary vote winner and partly by the pri- mary winners in each state congressional district.
A McClatchy-MSNBC poll last week showed Clinton with a 45 percent to 36 percent advantage over Obama in California, with about 11 percent undecided.
But polls over the weekend showed the candidates within a few percentage points of each other, with Clinton slightly ahead. The margin of error was large enough in the poll sample to suggest that the two candidates are running in a dead heat.
Peter Ragone, a Clinton campaign volunteer and former spokesman for San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and former Gov. Davis, acknowledged the closeness of the race as a reason for a hard push to the finish.
In addition to Stockton, the former president appeared in Sacramento and San Francisco on Monday, while his wife campaigned on the East Coast.
"We always recognized this would be a tough race and close race," Ragone said. "We believe Senator Clinton's stances on issues such as the environment and housing and health care would appeal to Californians."
Obama's supporters held a small rally elsewhere on UOP's campus Monday, although campaign volunteer Richard Edelstein said the timing with Clinton's event was coincidental.
"It's going to be a tight race, but Obama has the momentum," Edelstein said.
He described a strong, positive response from drivers when he waved a sign for Obama at a street corner in Stockton over the weekend.
"We feel it out there," Edelstein said.
The UOP rally was the former president's second appearance in three years in Stockton. In the fall of 2006, he campaigned for then-congressional candidate Jerry McNerney on a rainy night at Stockton's airport.
McNerney went on to win the 11th Congressional District seat from Republican Richard Pombo, the only such seat to change hands in the state that year.
A spokesman at UOP said Monday's rally was under discussion for a week but wasn't confirmed until Saturday morning.
Bee staff writer Ben van der Meer can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2331.