TOPICS > Politics

On the Campaign Trail, Candidates Shape Foreign, Domestic Policies

March 20, 2008 at 6:10 PM EST
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Democratic presidential candidates Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama spent Thursday on the campaign trail outlining their plans to boost the economy, while presumptive GOP nominee Sen. John McCain met with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in London.


JIM LEHRER: Ray Suarez has our campaign update.

RAY SUAREZ: Today, Barack Obama was in Charleston, W.Va.; Hillary Clinton in Terre Haute, Ind.; and John McCain in London, England, all trying to drum up support for their presidential campaigns. For the latest on those campaigns, I’m joined by Jim VandeHei, executive editor of Politico.

And, Jim, do we know in any measurable way, any observable way whether the Jeremiah Wright speeches have hurt Barack Obama or whether Barack Obama’s own address earlier this week has helped?

JIM VANDEHEI, executive editor, Politico: I think there’s no doubt in the short term it’s hurt him. And you start to be able to measure that in the polls. You see his numbers going down; you see him going down in Pennsylvania.

I’m always a little hesitant to read too much into polls, because they really measure sort of the fickle nature of the electorate, but he’s worried. I mean, he’s been rattled by this in a way he’s probably never been rattled by anything in politics. He knows it goes to the core of, is he electable and is he authentic?

One speech — and it was a beautifully crafted speech — but no matter how beautifully crafted it is, it’s not going to put those questions to rest. He knows it’s going to require a sustained effort to make sure that he can reassure Democratic voters and independent voters and make sure that the Democratic establishment believes that he is the most electable and that he deserves this nomination, because it’s going to go on and on. And as long as he continues to hold that lead in pledged delegates, he’ll get the nomination.

RAY SUAREZ: He was on the stump today in Charleston, W.Va. Has the campaign tried to change the subject? Were there new topics in play today?

JIM VANDEHEI: There certainly has been. He’s been talking about Iraq; he’s been talking about the economy. He does not want to make this election about race. He never has, and he’ll never want to.

But the truth is, once you let that genie out of the bottle, you can’t say, “You know what? I don’t want to address that any longer.” But he has to be skillful in doing it, because he doesn’t want to put so much attention on it that that becomes the total focus of this campaign.

So what he’s going to do is continue to talk about those issues that he’s had success on. You saw his campaign go after Hillary Clinton on NAFTA based on some of the reports we saw coming out of the documents that she released yesterday. I think you’ll continue to see that focus on other issues.

Clinton faces 'daunting math'

RAY SUAREZ: Hillary Clinton has made public calls on Barack Obama today and yesterday to join her in getting a resolution to the flap over what to do about Michigan and Florida's Democratic delegates. Has the campaign or Barack Obama himself responded?

JIM VANDEHEI: Well, they clearly would like not to have a re-vote and they would like to have those delegates not count, because as long as he wins this race for the pledged delegates, I really do believe he gets the nomination. They certainly believe that.

And Hillary Clinton is putting a tremendous amount of her mental focus, but also the campaign focus, into forcing a vote in Michigan and Florida. And despite the fact that it looks like right now that you won't have a re-vote, I find that hard to believe.

I find it hard to believe in this historic election, one of the closest elections we've ever seen, that the Democratic Party is not going to allow Florida and Michigan some sort of say in who wins this race. So, you know, always expect the unexpected in this race.

RAY SUAREZ: Governor Granholm of Michigan, a Democrat, today all but conceded that the re-vote effort at least there seems dead.

JIM VANDEHEI: It does. But, again, there's different ways of doing this. You can have a mail-in vote. You can have a regular primary. You can do a caucus. It's never too late.

Remember, in all likelihood, if they have a re-vote, it would happen in June. So there's a tremendous amount of time between now and then for something to happen.

You now see private donors stepping up, saying, "You know what? You're worried about the burden on the taxpayers? We'll pay for it." Of course, those donors are close to Hillary Clinton. That's not coincidental, because she needs that. She needs to be able to have convincing wins in those two states to pick up more pledged delegates and also to narrow Obama's lead overall, if you look at the popular vote.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, let's talk a little bit more about that. Today, Hillary Clinton was in Indiana, in the company of senator and former governor Evan Bayh, a supporter of hers, talking to voters in Terre Haute. If she does well in these coming states, isn't there still daunting math for her?

JIM VANDEHEI: Daunting math. I mean, I think people really are losing a little bit of perspective on what's happening right now. It's virtually impossible for Hillary Clinton to end this process with more pledged delegates. Those pledged delegates reflect the will of the voters.

I cannot fathom that the Democratic Party is going to deny the nomination to an African-American candidate who's won more pledged delegates. I understand that the process allows for super-delegates, but you hear Nancy Pelosi and so many other politicians saying, "You know what? We don't want to go down that road."

That's why you see Hillary Clinton putting so much focus on Michigan and Florida. She needs them. She needs to cut that margin on pledged delegates, and she needs to show that her appeal is solid in swing states like Ohio and Florida, and that she can win the overall popular vote and that she's more electable. That's tough.

McCain bides his time

RAY SUAREZ: Today, John McCain is in London raising money from American expatriates. Is this a campaign swing through Europe and the Middle East?

JIM VANDEHEI: It's a taxpayer-funded campaign swing. He's going there as part of a CODEL. He was going there with some members of Congress initially to Iraq to be able to talk about foreign policy.

I think he thought this is a great opportunity to be able to play to his strength. In politics, you always have to play to your strength and his is foreign policy.

He had this little gaffe there yesterday where, when he was speaking about Iraq and the Iranian incursion, or assistance, he was saying it was going to al-Qaida and he had to quickly correct himself.

RAY SUAREZ: Several times.

JIM VANDEHEI: Several times. And that was obviously embarrassing for him.

The truth is he's sort of an invisible candidate in some ways. If you look at the overall coverage, so much of it is focused on Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

I think John McCain is pretty happy, for the most part, to sit back, try to put together a campaign structure, raise money, and figure out a campaign strategy to be able to win in the election, in the general election, and to do that by maybe boning up on the economy, which he himself has said, "You know what? That's one of my weaknesses. I'm much stronger on foreign policy."

Well, look what's happening with the markets. Look what happened with Bear Stearns. Look what's happening with people's housings, their homes, and their mortgages. He's going to have to make it clear to people that he's strong on that issue, too.

I think he wants to spend a lot of time studying up and figuring out the right vice president who would complement his strength on foreign policy.

RAY SUAREZ: But as those stories, like the Bear Stearns meltdown, were heating up America's front pages, he was in the Middle East. Is that a problem? Is that just one of those things that happens, huh?

JIM VANDEHEI: I think it's one of those things that happens, I think. But you've got to look at the bigger picture. He's got to figure out a way to take command when he's talking about the economy.

Simply saying, "Ah, we want more tax cuts," I don't think that sells with the American people anymore. They want to make sure that you understand what's happening to them, you know, that they work for so long counting on their house rising in value, being able to stay in their house, and being able to have enough money to do the things that everybody wants to do.

He has to show some empathy and some understanding of what's happening to the average American. And that's why I think, when you see who he picks for his vice president, I think he's going to put a lot of emphasis on somebody who's strong on the economy.

It's why you see a lot of people, especially over at the Wall Street Journal and some other places, advocating Mitt Romney, who has a background in business, and they think that would complement McCain, despite the fact that it was crystal-clear in the election they don't like each other.

RAY SUAREZ: Jim VandeHei of Politico, thanks a lot.

JIM VANDEHEI: It's great being here.