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Obama Camp Seeks to Redefine Battlegrounds, Focus on Policy

June 24, 2008 at 6:05 PM EDT
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With the general election now in full swing, Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain are busy shaping their campaign strategies. David Axelrod, a top Obama adviser, discusses how his team is approaching the trail.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Since becoming the presumptive Democratic nominee three weeks ago, Barack Obama has spent most of his time in battleground states. Today was no exception.

Obama visited Nevada, which follows stops in New Mexico, Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Missouri, North Carolina and Virginia.

Obama has also stepped up his advertising presence in those states and nine others, a total of 18, airing a new television spot that focuses on his personal history. Among those are 14 states that President Bush carried in 2004, including typically Republican strongholds such as Georgia, Montana, and Alaska.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: America is a country of strong families and strong values. My life has been blessed by both. I was raised by a single mom and my grandparents. We didn’t have much money. But they taught me values straight from the Kansas heartland where they grew up.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But Obama has also been put on the defensive in recent weeks over his decision to opt out of the federal system that funds presidential campaigns. For months, Obama had suggested he would abide by the system’s limits if his Republican opponent agreed to do the same.

But last week, Obama announced that he would pass on $85 million in public funds, deciding instead to raise the money on his own with no limits on the amount he can spend.

Just hours after the announcement, McCain rebuked Obama.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: This election is about a lot of things, but it’s also about trust. It’s also about whether you can take people’s word, because when you campaign for the highest office in the land, you make certain commitments to the American people.

And if you’re not even willing to keep one that is as impactful in a political campaign as his decision to finance his own campaign and completely contradict his solemn pledge, I think should be disturbing to all Americans.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Obama also faced criticism last week when campaign volunteers at a Detroit rally barred two Muslim women from sitting behind the podium, effectively ensuring their headscarves would not appear in photographs or video with the candidate.

Obama later phoned the women and apologized, but the move has raised questions from Muslim supporters.

Disagreement on offshore drilling

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, the two campaigns have spent the past few weeks sparring on how to best address the country's energy needs. McCain has called for off-shore oil drilling to ease the price at the pump.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Do I want more sources of oil that don't come from the Middle East? Absolutely. But, again, I respect the position of those states.

So I think that most people, as we saw in a recent poll, as I said, in Florida, that people are saying, "Look, we've got to do things so that we can eliminate our dependence on foreign oil and address the issue of climate change."

I am not locked into position on a specific issue. I am locked into position on principles and values.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Today in Las Vegas, Obama pushed back on that idea.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Just yesterday, Senator McCain actually admitted this. In a town hall meeting, he said, and I quote, "I don't see an immediate relief, but," quote, "the fact that we are exploiting these reserves would have a psychological impact that I think is beneficial."

A psychological impact. In case you're wondering, in Washington-speak, what that means is it polls well. It's an example of how Washington tries to convince you that they've done something to make your life better when they really didn't.

The American people don't need psychological relief or meaningless gimmicks to get politicians through the next election cycle. They need real relief.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Another dust-up between the campaigns came yesterday, this time on national security. In an article published yesterday by Fortune magazine, McCain's chief strategist, Charlie Black, was asked what the political impact would be of another terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Black responded, "Certainly it would be a big advantage to McCain."

McCain quickly distanced himself from the comments.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: I cannot imagine why he would say it. It's not true. I've worked tirelessly since 9/11 to prevent another attack on the United States of America. My record is very clear. If he said that -- and I do not know the context -- I strenuously disagree.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Black later told reporters that his remarks were inappropriate and he deeply regretted them. The Obama campaign fired back in a statement, calling the comments "a complete disgrace" and "exactly the kind of politics that needs to change."

Battleground states for Obama

David Axelrod
Senior Strategist, Obama Campaign
I think there's a strong sense in this country that the policies that have been in place for the last eight years and the long-term failures of Washington are such that we really do need change. We need new leadership; we need new energy.

For a closer look at the Obama campaign, we turn now to its senior strategist, David Axelrod. He joins us from Chicago.

And for the record, we've also requested an interview with a senior adviser to the McCain campaign, and we hope to bring that to you soon.

David Axelrod, thank you for being with us.

DAVID AXELROD, Obama Campaign Chief Strategist: Good to be with you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, we have a new poll we've just learned about a few minutes ago, a new national poll done by Bloomberg News and the Los Angeles Times, which has Senator Obama 15 points ahead of Senator McCain. Does that sound right to you?

DAVID AXELROD: Well, you know, we're encouraged by what we see from around the country in the individual state polls that suggest that we're doing well, but we also have learned long ago, Judy, not to set our clock to the polls. If we did that, we would have resigned from the race about a year ago.

And so we know that there's a lot of hard work to do. And we're doing it, as you mentioned. Senator Obama is traveling this country visiting many states, many states that Democrats haven't won in the past elections.

And we're going to continue to bring our message of change to the country. And this is going to be a hard-fought election from now until November.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, what about those states that you're in? We mentioned 18 states, most of which the Democrats lost in the last election, some of which haven't gone Democratic in years. Do you really think you have a shot in those states?

DAVID AXELROD: I really do, because I think there's a strong sense in this country that the policies that have been in place for the last eight years and the long-term failures of Washington are such that we really do need change. We need new leadership; we need new energy.

Senator McCain has, in many ways, signaled his desire to continue the policies that we've seen over the last eight years. He said we've made great progress in our economy. As we know, he's very much on board with Bush foreign policies.

So I think the American people are very eager to see a change in policy. And they know that that change is only going to come from Senator Obama.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But how much work do you still have to do to win over Democrats who supported Senator Clinton and independents who, I believe, right now are still tilting towards Senator McCain?

DAVID AXELROD: Well, I think the independent vote is splitting pretty evenly right now, Judy. And you can see from this poll that you mentioned today and others that I think the Democratic Party is coalescing.

We had a very hard-fought race with a very strong candidate in Senator Clinton. And, of course, there were divisions that were evident during that primary, but I think what binds Democrats is a real conviction that we have to change the direction of this country. And people are coming together very quickly.

So I'm confident that we're going to be unified. But the bigger thing is that we're expanding the ranks of Democrats. We added 3.5 million, many of them independent voters, disaffected Republicans. We're building a coalition for change that I think is going to be very powerful in November.

Obama's funding decision motives

David Axelrod
Senior Strategist, Obama Campaign
We want to be well-equipped for that fight. We want to be able to repel the 527s and the kinds of things that we expect will be coming. And so we had to make the decision we did.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me ask you about campaign finance and Senator Obama's announcement last week that he's going to forego taking money from the public finance system.

What changed between the time last year when he essentially committed to taking public funding and just now when he says he won't? I mean, he knew then about these outside, so-called outside groups, 527s. So what's really changed?

DAVID AXELROD: Well, first of all, Judy, let me say that the whole point of campaign finance reform laws are to reduce the influence of big money in our politics. No one has done more to achieve that as a candidate than Barack Obama: 1.5 million contributors, average donation less than $100.

He doesn't take money from political action committees; he doesn't take money from registered federal lobbyists. He's urged the 527 independent groups with their unlimited contributions to shut down. And two of the largest Democratic-oriented 527s have shut down in reaction to his public comments.

He's done a lot to change the public finance -- the financing, I should say, of campaigns, just through the actions and the leadership that he's shown.

Senator McCain does take money from PACs. He does take money from lobbyists. He signaled to the 527s last week -- and Bob Novak reported this in his column on Sunday -- that basically he's taken a hands-off position. He kind of gave them the green light to do what they will. And they're raising money at a $28,000 clip per person for the Republican National Committee.

By the end of this campaign, I'm very certain that there will be equal spending on both sides, and perhaps the Republicans will outspend us as they have in the past.

But we want to be well-equipped for that fight. We want to be able to repel the 527s and the kinds of things that we expect will be coming. And so we had to make the decision we did.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But so far -- but, excuse me, so far hasn't most of the spending by these outside groups been on behalf of Democratic groups rather than Republican?

DAVID AXELROD: Well, they've been spending in the primary. But we all know last -- it was in the summer of 2004 that a group nobody ever heard of called the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which was kind of a misnomer, started running attack ads against Senator Kerry.

And everybody dismissed it as a small little rump group. And by the end of the election, they had spent tens of millions of dollars to try and to engage in character assassination against Senator Kerry. We're not going to allow that to happen again.

Clinton's campaign debt

David Axelrod
Senior Strategist, Obama Campaign
In terms of her campaign debt, you know, we would urge all of our supporters who are interested to go ahead and help Senator Clinton. She is our ally in this race. And she's an ally in trying to change this country and move this country forward.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me ask you about energy. As we know -- and we just were reporting on it -- Senator Obama has criticized Senator McCain for now saying he would drill for oil in off-shore and coastal areas, because, among other things, Senator Obama is saying it wouldn't result in bringing gasoline prices down any time soon.

But we're now seeing public opinion polls that show most Americans favor off-shore drilling. Isn't this an area now where the public is on the side of your Republican opponent?

DAVID AXELROD: Well, there's no doubt. You know, Senator McCain was opposed to drilling. And now the polls have changed, and he's changed his position.

But the real question is: Is this going to advance our goals of reducing energy prices? Is this going to advance our goal of breaking our dependence on oil?

He said in the clip that you ran that he was interested in energy independence and also in reducing the impact of greenhouse gases and global warming by continuing our reliance on oil, which is what drilling is all about.

We're only going to continue to contribute to global warming. His policies are at war with themselves.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One other thing about something Senator Obama often says. He's often accusing Senator McCain of -- if he's elected president, it would simply be a third term of President George W. Bush. But aren't there really as many differences between Senator McCain on the issues with President Bush as there are similarities?

DAVID AXELROD: Gee, I don't think so, Judy. The New York Times ran a very good piece on this about a week ago and they actually had a graphic. And the graphic that showed the areas of agreement, the positions of agreement was much larger than the other one.

But on the really big issues that are facing people's lives, particularly the economic policies, there's virtually no difference between John McCain and George Bush.

On some issues of social policy, like a woman's right to choose, Senator McCain has signaled that he would continue to try and reverse Roe v. Wade and appoint judges to the court who would follow that doctrine, though some of his surrogates have told Democratic groups privately something different.

So I don't think that there's much difference on many, many issues. And that's the point here. We have to look forward, not backward.

These policies have failed this country, and it's time for a change. I think people in this country feel that strongly. And that's what this election is about.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Very quickly, one last question. We know Senator Obama is going to be campaigning later this week with Senator Clinton. How much campaigning do you expect her to do for Senator Obama? And has an arrangement been made whereby you will help her pay off her campaign debt?

DAVID AXELROD: Well, first of all, we're grateful for what she is doing this week. We're grateful for the great speech she made a couple of days back when she withdrew from the race in support of Senator Obama.

And, look, I know that she is someone who cares deeply about the Democratic Party, but more so about the country. And she knows more than anyone how much we need change. I think she's going to be an active campaigner in this election. And she's got a powerful voice, and I think it's going to be an influential voice.

In terms of her campaign debt, you know, we would urge all of our supporters who are interested to go ahead and help Senator Clinton. She is our ally in this race. And she's an ally in trying to change this country and move this country forward. And we want to help each other.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, David Axelrod, senior strategist to Senator Barack Obama, we thank you very much.

DAVID AXELROD: Good to be with you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Appreciate it.