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MARGARET WARNER: When voters go to the polls tomorrow in California and 15 other states across the country, they’ll be choosing more than half the delegates needed to win both the Democratic and Republican nominations. Some perspective now from three longtime political reporters who’ve been covering this campaign: NewsHour regular Elizabeth Arnold of National Public Radio, David Broder of the “Washington Post,” and Ron Brownstein of the “Los Angeles Times.”
Elizabeth, I should have mentioned you and Ron are out there in California. What would you ad to Terry’s piece? How does it feel on the ground to you out there in these final days?
ELIZABETH ARNOLD: I would probably… I was just saying this to Ron here in California — I’d say the sense that this place is really the decisive vote tomorrow I think is a misnomer. I think it was several weeks ago but I think the writing is sort of on the wall here and everyone is actually looking to New York.
MARGARET WARNER: And, Ron, McCain had hoped at least — I mean, I think Elizabeth is certainly right in terms of the Republican vote. But in this blanket primary that we heard so much about, McCain had hoped until a few days ago that maybe he could at least win that — that kind of symbolic victory. What happened?
RON BROWNSTEIN: Well, they were hoping for a split decision at best. I’m sorry, at worst. Where Bush, because of the closed nature of the actual delegate portion of the primary, only Republican votes count on that side for the actual allocation of delegates. Bush has a very clear advantage there, Margaret.
This electorate in California, the Republican electorate, is much more conservative than is usually imagined. About two-thirds of the Republican voters call themselves conservatives, a slightly higher percentage than in South Carolina.
So that’s pretty difficult terrain for McCain. What they were hoping was, to get a big crossover vote that might allow them to get past Bush. And while that still is on the outside realm of possibility, what’s happened basically is that you have a Democratic primary here on the same day. Most Democrats are going to vote for Al Gore, some for Bill Bradley and that reduces the crossover.
That’s going to be a factor tomorrow also in Missouri, Ohio, and Georgia — states that do have an open primary, you can theoretically have a crossover for McCain. But with an actual Democratic vote going on it’s going to be harder for him to bring those people over to his side.
MARGARET WARNER: Before we move to New York, Elizabeth, let me go back to you because I know you’ve been out with Bush today. Do Bush and his people reflect this confidence?
ELIZABETH ARNOLD: I’d say yes. He’s looking much more like a general election candidate, Margaret. Yesterday and today his speeches were laced to references of the fall: What I’m going to do in the fall. This is an issue: Education. He said today actually at a news conference, education is an issue that really differentiates me from Vice President Al Gore, who I’ll be facing in the fall. I mean, he’s really… although he’s not taking any votes for granted here, he’s really looking ahead and acting like a candidate who is thinking much more about the general election than what happens tomorrow.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. David, turning to New York, you’ve been there recently. What’s happening there in the final days?
DAVID BRODER: Well, New York is a little more complicated story because it’s really 31 separate primaries, and each of that number of congressional districts Governor Bush has Governor George Pataki of New York running interference for him. In New York, you really do have an old-fashioned patronage-fed party organization. And they have been pumping it up for Bush for a number of weeks now. There’s no such McCain effort except in Staten Island where Guy Molinari, the bureau president, is for him and a few of his friends in New York City are also helping out. There will probably be a split verdict on the delegates, but I think it’s going to be a surprise to most New York politicians if George W. Bush doesn’t win most of them.
MARGARET WARNER: Ron, what has caused — I mean, you’ve been out there with both of these candidates. What has caused McCain to seem to lose ground, at least in the polls? We have to admit we’re going with these polls in these final days. I mean he is saying a lot of the same things.
RON BROWNSTEIN: Actually I think, Margaret, he’s gotten away from what has made him strong. What made McCain strong was a broad reform message that attracted a lot of people who had been, you know, disaffected from the system and also a personal story of heroism and strength that gave people the sense that this was someone who could shake up politics as usual. Even through Michigan he faced a big problem looking forward of not being able to crack into core Republican voters and trailing them 2-to-1.
What’s happened, I think, since Michigan has exacerbated his problems on both end of the equation. By getting into such pointed conflicts with Bush over the conduct of the campaign and then with Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell over their place in the Republican Party, he’s both deepened his problem among Republicans, deep in the sense among many core Republican voters that this guy isn’t really one of us and I think even more importantly lost some of his appeal to those independent, less partisan voters who are attracted as much to a non-political style as they are to the message.
And the idea of this guy being caught in a daily rat-a-tat tat with Bush, as he himself has put it in the past, I think he loses every day he’s doing that even if he gets the better of the argument because McCain has to convince a portion of the electorate that doesn’t usually like politicians that he is not a typical politician, and I think he’s lost ground on that front.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, Elizabeth, there are also these ads — Terry showed some of them; there have been some by the Bush campaign, others — this independent expenditure — attacking McCain on specific things in his voting record — do you think those are having a big impact?
ELIZABETH ARNOLD: Iactually think what I’d take issue with something that Ron just said. He’s back, although he’s still talking about process, he is back on track because Bush handed him this issue, an issue ad run by one of Bush’s friends, which it’s exactly what he started his campaign, he based his campaign on, on issue advocacy. He’s a different candidate entirely, Margaret.
For a couple of weeks he was just totally off stride. Last night in a San Francisco suburb he was back, he was railing against the party establishment, the big money and we’ve got to take back our government. And that’s exactly what sort of launched his campaign in the first place in New Hampshire. So I would say for McCain inadvertently it’s been a blessing.
MARGARET WARNER: How do you see this, David, in terms of why McCain’s lost some ground and whether this is the final moments he’s returning to his old theme….
DAVID BRODER: I would agree with what both Elizabeth… Have been saying. But the thing that surprised me was because that it’s taken until really this last ten days for the Bush campaign to dig into John McCain’s 17 years of voting in the Congress and pick out a few votes, a handful of votes really, that are embarrassing to him in particular states. We’ve heard a lot about the cancer ads in New York, but in Connecticut they’re talking about his votes against Seawolf submarines, against Amtrak subsidies. In state after state they’ve found these particular issues. I have to say, you know, whether it’s the Bush campaign or some, quote-unquote, independent expenditures, the man’s voting record is fair game in a political race.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you also why do you think the one place McCain still seems to be doing well is New England.
DAVID BRODER: Well, the capital of New England is Boston in media terms. And Boston Television was a center for the New Hampshire campaign coverage and advertising. People in Massachusetts, in neighboring Vermont, Rhode Island, saw exactly the same campaign unfold on television that the voters of New Hampshire did. What they saw was that dynamic reform heroic John McCain against the George Bush who was a pretty scripted fellow at that point in the campaign. And I think that effect is still there.
MARGARET WARNER: Ron, how much in these final days, then, are we seeing the outline of the fall campaign?
RON BROWNSTEIN: Well, I think we’re only beginning to, in fact, Margaret. George Bush has ended up this primary campaign and in fact it does end tomorrow. If McCain does win New York it will not, but Bush is in a place very different from where he thought he was going to be. I mean, I think in many ways he is running against John McCain — much of the campaign he thought that someone like Steve Forbes might run against him.
Bush started off as the one who was going to broaden the party and bring in independents and Democrats with a message of compassionate conservatism. And, instead, he ends up as the defender of the party base against the infidel talking, you know, a lot about tax cuts and having to deal with his relationship with religious conservatives. Now, he is beginning to move back toward his general election themes.
You know, Elizabeth mentioned him talking about education. He will be probably more comfortable talking about education than any Republican nominee we’ve had in a long time. He still has some very significant centrist assets he can use to reposition himself vis-à-vis Gore if he is the nominee in the general election. But he has clearly created some problems for himself over the last couple of months in the way he’s had to win this nomination. It’s left him, I think, in a more traditional box.
He looks like a more conventional Republican nominee than he thought he was going to be. And that’s entirely a function of the way he’s had to go out and consolidate the base to offset McCain’s extraordinary strength in the center and with less partisan voters.
MARGARET WARNER: Elizabeth, do you agree that if McCain wins New York tomorrow and one would assume then New England, what’s your reading of his intentions then?
ELIZABETH ARNOLD: Oh, I don’t think this is a man who goes quietly into the night, Margaret. I think that we’re in for several more contests. I think we’ll be looking at Florida. We’ll be looking at Illinois. I don’t think any of us will be getting the sleep that we’ve been thinking we’ll be getting. I think he’s in it for the duration. By contrast, I think you saw Bill Bradley the other night in a Democratic debate who was thinking about perhaps exiting from the race and thinking about his legacy in terms of the campaign and wanting to go out with his head held high. I think McCain is a fighter. And he’s in it for the long haul.
MARGARET WARNER: How do you see that, David?
DAVID BRODER: Well, he is a fighter. But you have to have delegates to keep fighting. And New York and Ohio represent his best chances for large pots of delegates. If the polls are right, he may come up short in those two states. But it’s going to be a remarkable scene if and when John McCain has to go back to the United States Senate. I’ve been thinking about that Tuesday luncheon of Republican Senators where Trent Lott will probably graciously introduce him as, “you folks all remember our colleague John McCain. John, tell us what you’ve been telling the folks out there in the country about us.” That’s going to be a wonderful moment.
MARGARET WARNER: Ron, yesterday I think McCain said he figured that Trent Lott, thought it was a lose-lose for him. McCain would be president or he’d be back in the Senate.
RON BROWNSTEIN: I think he’d rather have him back in the Senate actually.
MARGARET WARNER: It is a tough calendar immediately ahead for John McCain, isn’t it, even if he does quite well tomorrow?
RON BROWNSTEIN: Yeah. Basically, Margaret, the terrain gets very tough for him after tomorrow. It’s very hard to imagine any scenario where Bush does not win more delegates tomorrow. In fact with California in his hip pocket, Missouri, Georgia, Maryland, even Ohio, very strong, he’s going to come out of tomorrow with more delegates than McCain under any scenario. Then the next nine states that vote Friday and Tuesday, three mountain states on Friday, six southern states on Tuesday, Bush has got to be favored in all of them.
And the overwhelming likelihood is which the end of March 14 he will be 80 to 90 percent of the way — of the total he needs of the 1,034 delegates he needs to be the nominee. Now, McCain at that point — the calendar moves back North — Elizabeth mentioned Illinois on the 21st. We go to Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. McCain would basically — could conceivably if he wins New York survive this nine-state wipeout over the next week and make a last stand in Illinois — perhaps then if he wins there going on to places like Pennsylvania.
But he would be living permanently on the edge of elimination. And it would be very, very difficult. The irony is that the California — the effort to create a blanket primary to bring in independents and Democrats was unacceptable to the national parties. We ended up with a closed primary in which only Republicans can vote. And that could be the pivot in this race given the way in which the differences in the kinds of coalitions these two men attract. That could be the single most important deciding factor nationally.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, thank you, Ron, Elizabeth, and David.