By Dan Morain, Senior editor The Sacramento Bee
Published: Saturday, Oct. 23, 2010 – 12:00 am | Page 13A

Suddenly, California’s race for attorney general has become nationalized – and the out-of-state players who have stepped into the campaign say a great deal about the candidates and the power of the office.

Consider this: A political organization based in Virginia, headed by influential Republicans and funded by tobacco, insurance and gambling interests is airing an ad to elect Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, the Republican running against San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris.

The buy is large – more than $1 million. The ad is slick and attacks Harris at her weak point, the death penalty and a decision she made as district attorney not to bring capital charges against a man who killed a San Francisco cop.

It may be the first major foray by a national organization into a race for California attorney general. The point it makes is clear: The person who holds the job of California attorney general matters, not just to Californians.

Lest there be any doubt, President Barack Obama dropped by the Atherton home of former California Controller Steve Westly and headlined a small fundraiser for about 40 people for Harris on Thursday.

It’s not often that a president takes time to raise money for a single down-ballot candidate. But it makes sense. To win in California, Democratic leaders need to energize Democrats, including African Americans. Harris is the one African American Democrat on the statewide ballot.

There’s also the matter of reciprocity. Harris and Obama are friends. She helped Obama raise money in San Francisco when he was running for the U.S. Senate in 2004. In February 2007, Harris traveled to Springfield, Ill., to witness Obama’s announcement that he would run for president.

She spent a week walking through the cold and snow in Des Moines, Iowa, knocking on doors for Obama in the days leading up to the first caucus in January 2008. She and I stood next to one another listening to Obama’s victory speech on the night he won the caucus.

Republicans believe that Cooley, viewed as a moderate who is popular in Los Angeles, can win.

This battle in particular has serious political overtones. Republicans believe Harris would become a formidable candidate for higher office in California, and perhaps nationally, if she is elected attorney general on Nov. 2. A defeat would not fit with such ambitious plans.

“If that is a byproduct of defeating her, we’re perfectly happy with that,” said Adam Temple, spokesman for the Virginia-based group Republican State Leadership Committee.

But Temple added that’s not the main goal. Rather, the organization is pushing for Cooley’s election because he is “a conservative Republican,” who would “provide a firewall between the federal government and the state.”

“At a time when the federal government is overreaching, attorneys general often are on the front lines,” Temple said.

By Election Day, the Republican State Leadership Committee will have spent roughly $20 million on races for statewide offices, including legislatures and attorneys general across the country.

The group’s chairman is Ed Gillespie, who was counselor to President George W. Bush. Gillespie and Bush’s chief political strategist, Karl Rove, helped create American Crossroads, which is spending millions to help Republicans take control of the House and Senate. American Crossroads has given $600,000 to the Republican State Leadership Committee.

Take a look at some corporate donors, culled from the organization’s public filings and from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, and you’ll see the significance of the office of attorney general:

• Blue Cross/Blue Shield, $918,000. Cooley has given ambiguous answers about whether he would join state lawsuits over federal health care legislation. Harris embraces the legislation.

• Reynolds Tobacco and Altria, the world’s largest cigarette maker, have given a combined $1.15 million. The attorney general enforces terms of the $200 billion-plus settlement of the states’ litigation against the tobacco industry.

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