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Does Barack Obama’s Iowa win mean California is in play?

Los Angeles City Controller Laura Chick thinks so.

“For the first time since Bobby Kennedy’s historic primary in 1968, California counts,” Chick declared at a noontime rally downtown with about 100 Obama supporters.

“We can be deciding the next president of the United States,” she said.

Here’s the rationale: Had Hillary Clinton won Iowa handily, and had she gone on to win New Hampshire, her race would have looked inevitable heading into the Feb. 5 “tsunami Tuesday” voting, when 22 states including California goes to the polls. The Golden State is the biggest prize that day, but a Clinton sweep of the early states would have made it difficult for Obama to mount a serious challenge. In the most recent poll, Clinton still maintains a double-digit lead, although it is smaller than a few months ago.

Obama’s victory at least raises the likihood that the race will still be competitive by then, especially since absentee ballots go out next week (and voters can still choose Joe Biden, Chris Dodd and Mike Gravel, even though they’ve all dropped out). It’s still hard for me to believe that the state will be competitive, for only the reason that it has been so long since it has. The last hint of a competitive California Democratic presidential primary was in 1972, when George McGovern battled it out for delegates against Hubert Humphrey. McGovern won the state handily.

Coverage wise, a Clinton-Obama showdown in California would be a media sensation, what many believe would come down to a battle waged on the airwaves in TV ads and on airport tarmacs. There’s also a Democratic presidential debate scheduled in Los Angeles on Jan. 30.

But each campaign is spinning their strengths at grassroots organizing. One measurement seems to be the numbers of phone calls each operation has place to potential supporters — Obama’s campaign: 300,000. Clinton’s campaign: 400,000.

In a conference call with reporters on Friday, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is endorsing Clinton, said, “We’ve got a field operation that is going to match anywhere,” he said, noting that Clinton holds a double digit lead in the state and has garnered the endorsement of “the vast majority of the electeds.” The campaign added another one on Friday: Ethel Bradley, wife of late Mayor Tom Bradley.

Also on the call was national campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe, who stressed that the Clinton campaign was well equipped to fight it out until Feb. 5. (He said that Clinton was “fired up” for the New Hampshire campaign — an unintended reference to one of Obama’s signature lines?). He said the Clinton campaign is preparing to launch new ads in New Hampshire tonight and tomorrow.

“We are the only [campaign] focused on a national strategy from the beginning,” Villaraigosa said.

He’s in New Hampshire campaigning for Clinton until Tuesday.

Obama’s field director in California, Buffy Wicks, touted the campaign’s 1,100 precinct captains and said they plan to make 15,000 calls per day until the primary.

“We are going against all odds,” Wicks said. “Iowa elected a black man, that’s pretty amazing.”

Among those joining Chick were Obama campaign adviser David Washington and Los Angeles City Council President Eric Garcetti, both of whom had just returned from Des Moines.

“Barack Obama loves California,” Garcetti said. “On February 5, we’re going to show that California loves Barack Obama.”

Also present were state Sen. Gloria Romero and actor James Whitmore.

The latter borrowed a line from a famous movie, “Network,” in describing the Iowa caucus.

“There’s political magic goin’ on right now,” said Whitmore, 86. “Can’t explain it. I’ve been waiting a long time for the American people to say, ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!'”

That also is bound to be the sentiment of Californians if, once again, this thing is decided by the date of the primary.