If Bernie Sanders can pull off an upset in California, it will be a story that got its start on Hollywood Boulevard.
In a building that saw the likes of film stars and movie moguls and later was damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake, Sanders' newly leased Los Angeles headquarters is where his campaign will ultimately go big or go home. Steering the effort is Michael Ceraso, a rangy, goateed 34-year-old who, seven months ago, was working as a deputy program director for Airbnb. He'd never run a statewide campaign.
Sanders is trailing in state polls but "what gives us an advantage is people power," said Ceraso, alluding to the fervent crowds of 20- and 30-somethings at the senator's full-house rallies.
With time growing short in the primary season, California's June 7 contest could be a decisive showdown. Sanders told cheering supporters in a Los Angeles theater in March that if he wins delegate-rich California by a significant margin "we are going together to the White House."
But to make that happen, Ceraso and his team will have to take on the Clinton political powerhouse.
After helping to guide Sanders to victory in New Hampshire, Ceraso says he's not intimidated byHillary Clinton's team, which has won elections here before and has deep political ties that date back a generation to her husband Bill Clinton's administration.
Ceraso broke into presidential politics in 2008 when he joined then-Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign, and last year managed a successful campaign for a local school board. His Twitter feed, a blur of posts about the campaign and tributes to basketball star Kobe Bryant, urges followers to "Stay Frosty Folks" — slang for "keep cool."
Clinton comes to the race a tested winner. In 2008, when Democrats around the country were embracing Obama, the former First Lady notched an 8-point win in California. Bill Clinton locked in the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination in the state, which he carried in his two presidential contests. He visited California more than 70 times during his two terms as president.
This weekend, Hillary Clinton is expected in the Los Angeles area for a fundraiser with actor George Clooney.
Sanders, meanwhile, was barely recognized by voters a year ago but has since narrowed the gap. An independent Field Poll released this month found Clinton with a 6-point lead over Sanders, with 12 percent of voters still undecided.
Rep. Xavier Becerra, a Clinton supporter who heads the House Democratic Caucus, saysClinton's familiarity with state voters will be a critical factor on Election Day.
"She's walked with us, and that means a lot," said Becerra. In California "they know her."
With the primary about seven weeks away, the two candidates are quietly installing the nuts-and-bolts infrastructure for their campaigns, shopping for office space, hiring staff and organizing volunteers.
Ceraso, who started with Sanders as a deputy director in New Hampshire and grew up in the Los Angeles suburbs, has been on the ground in California about two weeks.
Unlike in next week's New York primary, which is limited to registered party members, California's Democratic primary is open to independents. As in past primaries, Clinton is expected to do well with older Democrats, Hispanics and black voters, while Sanders could perform better with younger voters and independents.
A spike in registration among younger voters might be an encouraging sign for Sanders. An analysis by Political Data Inc. found that registration among Californians between 18 and 24 years old was up 72 percent in the year-to-date, compared to the same period in 2012.
A central challenge for underdog Sanders will be motivating those young voters who can be unpredictable on Election Day, says Mitchell Schwartz, who ran Obama's 2008 campaign in the state and supports Sanders.
Even in an age when campaigns prod supporters across a range of social media "the younger you are, the less likely you are to vote," Schwartz said.
Clinton has other advantages. Some of the state's most influential Democrats are with her, including Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and top leaders in the Legislature. Sanders' most visible supporter among elected officials in Southern California is Gil Cedillo, a Los Angeles councilman and former legislator.
Ceraso, who grew up in a home where money was scarce, said he was drawn to Sanders' emphasis on income inequality. He finds himself in California somewhat by accident. He was thinking of moving to Washington, D.C., after the New Hampshire campaign, but the contest here evolved into a highly competitive match-up — one that had a role for him at the statewide level.
In California, 475 Democratic delegates will be divvied up in the election, some based on the outcome in each congressional district, others in proportion to the statewide tally. That will make it difficult for either candidate to win a commanding victory.
"Both Hillary and Bernie Sanders will get a lot of delegates out of here," predicted veteran Democratic strategist Bill Carrick, who is not aligned with either campaign. "It's hard to get a blowout."