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Campaign ‘Times’

January 5, 2004 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: For more on how the race in Iowa is unfolding we’re joined by two New York Times reporters. David Halbfinger has been on the road with Sen. John Kerry, and Adam Nagourney is the Times’ chief political reporter. Welcome gentlemen.

The Democratic debate used to feature all out attacks on President Bush. Yesterday it was all out attacks on Howard Dean. Adam, are all of Dean’s rivals now converging on the same strategy?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: They offered various reasons for why to knock Dean down a couple notches here.

If Dean wins Iowa and New Hampshire, which at this point seems very possible, it’s going to be really difficult for any of the Democrats so stop him after that. So at this point it makes sense for them to try to knock him down, plus you had most of the candidates, not all, I recall John Edwards didn’t, but most of the candidates going after Dean. I think you’ll hear more of that in the final two weeks of this campaign.

MARGARET WARNER: Joe Lieberman isn’t even in the Iowa caucuses. Why did he travel to the Iowa debate, in fact he was one of the toughest on Dean?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: That’s right. Maybe he had some frequent flier miles. That was really interesting, he flew across the country.

He’s playing to a different audience, he doesn’t care about Iowa. But he is trying to presently himself to people beyond Iowa and beyond New Hampshire as the toughest person to take on Dean. And in fact, he was among the toughest people to take him on last night. That was very much sort of a Lieberman-General Clark competition.

General Clark made the decision to skip the Iowa debate. But strangely he came to the one in November, which I don’t think many people paid attention to and didn’t come to this one. I think Lieberman saw an opportunity to come in here and use the stage of Iowa to make a national point.

MARGARET WARNER: David Halbfinger, is that an accurate description of the Kerry strategy vis-à-vis Dean that Dean is very much in Kerry’s sites, is it happening not only in debates but on the road?

DAVID HALBFINGER: That’s about all he talks about when he attacks is Howard Dean. An occasional mention of Dick Gephardt. But John Kerry is trying to make the argument, as he did last night in the debate and again today, that Howard Dean’s contradictions and frequent clarifications suggest that he doesn’t have the temperance or, the temperament or the judgment, the sound what Kerry says he has is the steady hand and responsible leadership that is needed from a president and he’s trying to show Americans in Iowa that he’s got it.

MARGARET WARNER: I read and actually saw Kerry saying today, you know, I think voters are listening to this and he’s talking about the comparisons between himself and Dean. Do the Kerry folks have actual evidence that this is working at all in his benefit, internal polling, something like that?

DAVID HALBFINGER: Well, everybody’s internal polling is very self serving and very suspect. There’s not a whole lot of internal polling coming out. That shows a whole lot of difference from the public polling.

But the Kerry people have a very strong organization in Iowa, they’re convinced that there’s a movement in their direction, they’re convinced that as undecided voters make up their mind they’re going to benefit from a late surge of some kind.

They’ve got their sights set on number two, on coming in second, if they can beat out Gephardt if it is going to be Dean who wins. So they also are counting on a new kind of corner in Iowa, a large turnout of veterans for Kerry. So they’re looking at that as a new constituency here.

MARGARET WARNER: Adam, one other question about the attacks on Dean. Now, Dean responded as we just saw, quite coolly to these attacks last night. But privately, are his people worried?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: You know, I have to tell you, I don’t think they’re worried. If this was a traditional campaign and I think we’ve seen by this point it’s really not, they probably should be worried because there’s just been such a — you’ve had a combination of attacks from opponents but also tough negative newspaper and magazine articles, and a buildup of, and Governor Dean’s own, you know, mistakes.

And you think the accumulation of all that would begin to sort of bring him down a bit. There is no, there’s a little evidence of that in New Hampshire, but overall there is no evidence of that and the Dean people I speak to don’t seem worried about that at all, they seem to expect that. One of the phenomenons, I use the word advisedly in this campaign, is that his supporters clearly seem to be if anything invigorated when ever there’s anything that appears to be the attack of the Washington establishment on Dean.

So, for example, I got to tell you last night of the images four or five quote-unquote Washington insiders beaten up on the governor from Vermont, you know what, that’s probably good in terms of Dean supporters, the same way during Dean’s famous interview at this point, at least in my circles on Meet the Press, where he was, I think objectively beaten up by Tim Russert and all this Washington guys oh it’s going to hurt him, it didn’t.

So I think all this stuff is actually helping tom some extent. But there’s a lot of undecided voters still out there and there’s a lot of people who have, at some point you would think that might break towards Kerry or — I also would add Edwards or Gephardt.

DAVID HALBFINGER: And certainly at the Kerry events I go to where you do see undecided voters, a lot of them are expressing that concern about Howard Dean, that he may be too much shooting from the hip, shooting his mouth off or whatever, and that they seem to be giving John Kerry a closer look. That’s admittedly at John Kerry events.

MARGARET WARNER: And tell us more about these John Kerry events. What kind of crowds does he get?

DAVID HALBFINGER: He’s getting stronger crowds. I’ve only been covering his campaign, so I can’t tell you how they stack up to other candidates or Dean. But they’re consistently in the hundred to 200 range, depending on the event.

Today he gave a speech on the economy, and I think he had a good full ballroom at a hotel downtown here. And a number of people there were expressing they like Dean, they’re interested in Kerry because they worry about Dean. That’s what people are saying before.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Adam, let’s go back to Dean and Gephardt here. Is Gephardt still on the theme he had been hitting which is standing up for working people, he’s one of them, the trade issue?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: Right. That’s right. Gephardt has a strategy in Iowa of building support on labor, which is, you might say is a politically calculated position which is why there’s so much stress on the anti-free trade, against some of the free trade treaties, on support from the elderly, which a huge percentage of voters in the Iowa caucuses, which is why all this talk on Medicare, and also he’s really been campaigning in rural areas to try to quietly build up support. It is a lot of ways a traditional blue collar, you know, Midwest appeal, which is similar to the appeal that he used in 1988 when he won.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. And also from you, a quick thumb nail assessment of Edwards, as you rightly pointed out, he did not join in the attacks on Dean, and he has been pretty relentlessly upbeat and optimistic. Give us your sense of how that’s playing. I don’t know if you’ve been to any of Edwards’ events –

ADAM NAGOURNEY: Edwards, well in terms of Edwards’ event, he doesn’t draw huge crowds. Kerry has drawn big crowds this whole year for some interestingly. Dean has drawn like big Bruce Springsteen concerts in the middle of nowhere. Edwards is, Edwards I think by every measure did very well last night.

It will be interesting to see how that translates down. Edwards does not have the machinery to get out the vote which is so critical in Iowa. Gephardt has that, Dean has that, and to a lesser extent Kerry has that. But I think he came across very well last night.

You saw him, if you watched it, going after Gephardt. He clearly thinks that Gephardt, the Gephardt voters are his voters and I think that makes sense. He’s campaigning a lot of those places I was talking about where Gephardt has been campaigning in these rural areas and Edwards thinks because he’s from the South and comes from a rural community, even though he doesn’t live in one now, that he sort of connects those voters.

So I think that what’s going on now which is very interesting Edwards is shooting for maybe number two, realist cloudy probably number three, and in this weird world of politics number four might be good enough. And he might be doing that in a way that will take votes away from Gephardt. So I think that’s something that we need to watch pretty closely right now.

MARGARET WARNER: And a final, just a 30-second assessment of Kucinich, because he’s still in there fighting very hard.

ADAM NAGOURNEY: He is, he’s got his supporters, he’s there all the time, he’s very articulate, he’s got very strong, not particularly big band of people who really like him. And I think he has become — he’s become Dr. Dean’s tormentor on the purity of his antiwar position, which is actually a pretty legitimate issue for Mr. Kucinich to raise.

MARGARET WARNER: Adam Nagourney and David Halbfinger, thank you both.