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On the Ground in Washington and Virginia

February 28, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: The Republicans first. Jeff Schapiro, is this Bob Jones religious issue having any resonance in Virginia?

JEFF SCHAPIRO: It has particular resonance in Virginia because today Senator McCain was in Virginia Beach, which is ground zero for the Robertson organization. It’s no small coincidence that he would be hitting on that note within spitting distance of Robertson headquarters.

KWAME HOLMAN: Where does it play? W do play?

JEFF SCHAPIRO: Well, clearly Senator McCain tried to expand the pool of participants. And that’s the key and ha been the key in previous victories. But what’s going on here is he is spotlighting for Virginia Republicans the very difficult relationship that they have with religious and social conservatives, who have a very prominent role in the nominating process.

JIM LEHRER: Now, there’s a little bit of a wrinkle in this race in Virginia tomorrow. In other words, it’s an open primary. There’s no Democratic primary. So Democrats and independents can vote, but they have to sign a pledge. Explain that.

JEFF SCHAPIRO: What Virginia voters are required to do is commit not to participate in the other party’s nominating process. At this point, it really don’t make a difference; Democrats are going to be choosing delegates to their convention by caucus and convention, and that process will rap up in June, well after the Democratic nomination is settled.

JIM LEHRER: Is there any evidence, Jeff, that McCain has struck any chords among independents and Democrats, as he has in other states?

JEFF SCHAPIRO: Well, some of the subordinate numbers in the most recent polls says he has a head of steam, particularly in northern Virginia at your end of the interstate and down around South Hampton Rhodes where he visited today. Again, the key to a McCain victory in Virginia is expanding the pool of participants. It’s not that he has to win, it’s that he has to lose honorably because Bush has had such an enormous head start here in Virginia with the entire Republican establishment behind him.

JIM LEHRER: And what McCain is trying to do is break off those… even those establishment party, regular straight party Democrats from the conservative Republican… I said Democrat. I mean Republican….the conservative Republican establishment away from the conservative religious Republicans? Is that what he’s aiming to do?

JEFF SCHAPIRO: Well, to some degree.

JIM LEHRER: I’m not sure I asked him right. Did you get my question?

JEFF SCHAPIRO: — the Republican apparatus — In his rally yesterday in Alexandria, he talked about running against the Gilmore-Warner machine, a reference to Governor Gilmore and Senator Warner, two fairly popular figures in Virginia, but both with their own difficulties within the Republican organization. Governor Gilmore is preoccupied with a very contentious session of the legislature right now. His transportation program is in big trouble. Senator Warner certainly has a reputation as an independent of sorts, not unlike Senator McCain. You recall that he refused to support Oliver North for the Senate back in 1994 and fielded his own candidate. So the Republican establishment is not exactly at the top of its game going into this primary. And another note: Governor Gilmore, a lot of the national press has pointed out that he has this indomitable political machine. Well, this indomitable political machine was turned against a moderate Republican in the Virginia General Assembly last June, paradoxically in the governor’s own home district, and she beat back this seemingly indomitable Gilmore machine. So I think to some degree there are people who are turning out or planning to turn out tomorrow who look on a chance to vote for McCain as an opportunity to tweak Governor Gilmore.

JIM LEHRER: So the momentum is with McCain?

JEFF SCHAPIRO: At this point, the Bush people believe that they will pull this thing off, but I think some of them believe that they may win ugly.

JIM LEHRER: Meaning what?

JEFF SCHAPIRO: Meaning say a five-point win or three-point win, a very close victory considering the enormous advantage that Governor Bush had in Virginia initially.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Joel Connelly, Washington State, where is the – where the Bush support in the state of Washington, compared with McCain and what he’s doing?

JOEL CONNELLY: It appears to be a dead end race out here. The Republican establishment here is strongly with Governor Bush, but just as we have seen the Christian faith and the Catholic religion, figure elsewhere in the country, the McCain campaign has brought the revival of another political faith long dormant here, namely moderate Republicanism, people who used to be for such candidates as Governor Rockefeller, Ambassador Lodge, Governor Scranton years and years ago. They’re popping out of the woodwork. We also have a very large, independent electorate that is used to crossing party lines at primary elections for state and federal offices, a good portion of which may do so for Senator McCain.

JIM LEHRER: Is the Bob Jones issue having any play at all in your state?

JOEL CONNELLY: It is in the sense that the Bush apology was issued just as he was flying here and there’s been a major matter of concern. A little bit more of an issue here, however, is the fact that Senator McCain has indicated that he would leave on the table the possible removal of four dams from the Snake River in Eastern Washington to restore salmon runs, something which is anathema to farm groups and to conservatives and Republicans east of the cascades in this state. So we have a regional issue that’s hurt Senator McCain a bit.

JIM LEHRER: Now the Democratic… There’s no Democratic race in Virginia tomorrow, but there certainly is in your state. How does that factor in to the Republican race and then to its own racist?

JOEL CONNELLY: You have a very large pool of independent voters. Sometimes like the great flock of black birds that come down on one telephone poll, they have en masse endorsed and nominated candidates here — once in the Republican primary for governor, another time in the Democratic primary for governor. So both Bradley and McCain are competing essentially for the same independents, although McCain is appearing as a rugged centrist. Bradley is appearing and is arguing as a very strong liberal.

JIM LEHRER: Now, on the Democratic race specifically, just among Democrats, what do you perceive to be the defining issue between Gore and Bradley? How are people dividing up, I’m for Gore, I’m for Bradley. What are they saying why?

JOEL CONNELLY: The one real defining issue between the two of them has to do with campaign finance reform. We’re an old-fashioned, clean government state. As long ago as 1972 we passed an initiative requiring our legislators to disclose their contributions and their personal finances. It drove many of the old lions out of the place. So this is a long-standing tradition here, an issue that hasn’t had much resonance elsewhere in the country but is a factor here. I think it is perceived that Senator Bradley is more for campaign finance reform, but Vice President Gore has pledged that his cause that he will take up as president as well. So Bradley has a certain clean government advantage, but he has attempted to develop other differences on such issues as gun control and the environment, and has, if anything, downplayed clean government, which is his strongest card.

JIM LEHRER: And he also has played the pro-choice, he is more pro choice than Gore. He said that in… even today he was saying that again. Is that making any gains for him?

JOEL CONNELLY: Once again we are a pro-choice state. We legalized abortion here as long ago as 1970. But it had been, if anything, rather foolish watching various pro-choice spokes people argue who is purer between these two candidates. I frankly wonder why Senator Bradley has raised the issue. The National Abortion Rights Action League has used the issue, I suppose, to get on good terms with the candidate it perceives as most likely to be elected President.

JIM LEHRER: Do you have the perception out there, Bradley spent a lot of time here, of course in his interview with Gwen Ifill earlier, he said, “no, this wasn’t his last stand. This was his beginning.” Do you perceive that he’s running like man that feels this is it for him, he doesn’t win in Washington tomorrow, he’s in trouble?

JOEL CONNELLY: It is still a curious campaign, the fact there is a certain intensity gap. He was brilliant before a church audience in an African American church on Sunday morning, before the NAACP banquet the night were, he basically mailed his speech in. At the University of Washington today, you had a situation as he was concluding his speech where the senior Bradley people were posing for a picture together on the steps of the administration building, exactly the sort of thing that you sometimes do when a wonderful episode in life is coming to an end.

JIM LEHRER: I see. Jeff Schapiro, back to you on the Democrats, what are they likely to do tomorrow in Virginia?

JEFF SCHAPIRO: Well, because it’s an open primary and anyone can participate, one of the things I think a lot of us will be looking for, will Democrat voters be participating in this process to make mischief, perhaps helping the weaker of the two candidates or the candidate they perceive as being weaker, or will they vote because they see a Republican candidate really embracing their issues? We’ve got a lot of union voters down on the peninsula who are very concerned about what President McCain might do to the Newport News shipbuilding and dry dock company. They could be participating. Richmond is a cigarette center. There are a lot of union voters here — we are very concerned about McCain’s position on tobacco. I think there we’ll be watching too to see if union voters participate in the Republican primary.

JIM LEHRER: Gore, Bradley have a lot of strength in Virginia?

JEFF SCHAPIRO: Gore is clearly the favorite of the Democratic establishment. There are a good number of Princeton graduates who are lining up for Bradley.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Tomorrow’s going to be interesting. Thank you both very much.

JEFF SCHAPIRO: Thank you.