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Democratic Race Nearing a Turning Point

May 14, 2008 at 6:25 PM EDT
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After trading wins in Democratic primary contests, the race continues between Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the party's nomination, while GOP Sen. John McCain works to mount a fresh general election strategy. A panel of experts examines the dynamics of the presidential race and weighs the candidates' next moves.

GWEN IFILL: Former presidential candidate John Edwards’ surprise endorsement of Barack Obama tonight could change the complexion of the Democratic race, this in spite of Hillary Clinton’s big win last night.

Hillary Clinton, fresh from a 41-point victory in West Virginia, spent the day savoring it and reassuring supporters. After beating Barack Obama by a margin of 67 percent to 26 percent, Clinton declared she has no plans to quit before the last primaries are held in June.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), New York: We know from the Bible that faith can move mountains.

And, my friends, the faith of the Mountain State has moved me.

I am more determined than ever to carry on this campaign…

… until everyone has had a chance to make their voices heard.

GWEN IFILL: But Clinton also promised that the continuing contest will help Democrats, no matter who the nominee is.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: Our nominee will be stronger for having campaigned long and hard, building enthusiasm and excitement, hearing your stories, and answering your questions. And I will work my heart out for the nominee of the Democratic Party to make sure we have a Democratic president.

GWEN IFILL: Clinton ended up with a net gain of 12 delegates yesterday and won over another super-delegate today.

Obama, however, continues to lead among super-delegates and in the overall Associated Press delegate count.

Obama, turning his attention to the general election, campaigned in Michigan today. He pledged to resolve the intra-party dispute over seating the state’s delegation at the Democrats’ summer convention. Those delegates were stripped after Michigan Democrats broke party rules to hold an early primary.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: I can guarantee you that we will make sure that the Michigan delegation is seated and that they are going to have a full voice in what happens in the convention.

GWEN IFILL: Obama also took heart in the results of another election outcome yesterday, where, for the third time this year, a Democratic congressional candidate won a traditionally Republican seat.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: This is a hardcore Republican seat, and they lost it by 8 points. And they did everything they could to — you know, they ran ads with my face on it and they said, “Oh, look at this former liberal. And his former pastor said offensive things.”

I mean, they were trying to do every trick in the book to try to scare folks in Mississippi, and it didn’t work. And the reason it didn’t work is because the American people know we need a new direction in Washington. That’s why we’re going to win Michigan.

GWEN IFILL: Obama scored one more non-electoral victory this afternoon, winning the endorsement of NARAL Pro-Choice America. The abortion rights group has in the past backed Clinton. Her campaign called the decision “surprising.”

Impact of Clinton win debatable

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz
[W]e need to make sure that our nominee can win states like West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, my home state of Florida. Hillary Clinton is that candidate, and I think last night clearly indicated that.

GWEN IFILL: Last night's results raised new questions for the Democrats and also for the Republicans. Here for some thoughts on all that are Roy Romer, former governor of Colorado and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. He endorsed Barack Obama just yesterday.

Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, national co-chair of Hillary Clinton's campaign, and co-chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's effort to win Republican seats.

And Vin Weber, former Republican congressman from Minnesota, he's now a Washington lobbyist.

Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz, I want to ask you about yesterday's results and what you think they tell us, especially in West Virginia, about the health of the Democratic Party?

REP. DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ (D), Florida: Well, the 67 percent of the vote that Senator Clinton won yesterday in West Virginia is just one in a series of clear indications that the American people and the voters that are coming to the polls in droves in the Democratic primary season really believe that Hillary Clinton would be our party's best nominee against John McCain. And last night was yet another example.

We have to make sure that we have a nominee that can win in those key swing states. And West Virginia is literally one of, if not the most important key swing state.

We have a back-and-forth track record with West Virginia. And at the end of the day, we need to make sure that our nominee can win states like West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, my home state of Florida. Hillary Clinton is that candidate, and I think last night clearly indicated that.

GWEN IFILL: Governor Romer, 41 points for your candidate, that's the loss, the margin of loss. What does that tell us about his candidacy?

ROY ROMER, Former Chairman, Democratic National Committee: Well, in Colorado, Senator Obama got 67 percent of the vote in the caucuses, compared to Senator Clinton's 32 percent. So it depends upon the state and the part of the country.

You know, last night was a tough state for Senator Obama, and it was not the best night. But campaigns are like that. The key thing here is Obama has a lead in delegates that cannot be overcome.

I think this race is over. I made my announcement yesterday. And I said, I think that it's time now that we get together and look to the general election. There's no way that I can add up -- the math is compelling. There's no way to add it up to a winner other than Senator Obama.

GWEN IFILL: Let me Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz about that. You're a Hillary Clinton supporter. Is the race over? And why isn't it?

REP. DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: No, the race isn't remotely over. And with all due respect to Governor Romer, the key indicator that is the clear indication of Senator Clinton being the best candidate for the general election is that she is now, as of last night, ahead in the popular vote, when you count Florida and Michigan, which we absolutely need to make sure that we do, because the Democratic nominee should be selected by voters in all 50 states.

And at the end of the day, when we look through the Electoral College map, the way we add up to the 270 Electoral College votes that we need is by winning the states that are swing states and by getting ahead in the popular vote. And that's how we get electoral votes.

At the end of the day, Hillary Clinton is ahead in the popular vote. More people have gone to the polls in America -- more Democrats have gone to the polls in America to cast votes for Hillary Clinton than for Senator Obama. And that is the measure that we should be using to decide who is our best foot forward in November.

GWEN IFILL: Governor Romer smiled when you said that.

ROY ROMER: It isn't the measure that we've all agreed on in the Democratic Party. The measure we've agreed on is, who has the most delegates?

And we ought not mislead the country. This is a contest that has rules, and the rules are, who has the most delegates? And those delegates have spoken.

They've got four or five primaries yet to run, but, not only that, I think Senator Obama, frankly, has shown in the primary races and in the caucus states that he will be the most electable of our candidates.

Bush's unpopularity hurting GOP

Former Rep. Vin Weber
Senator McCain has great appeal with independents. He has great appeal with conservative Democrats. And that will create a different playing field in those congressional races.

GWEN IFILL: Vin Weber, as you sit on the sidelines and watch the Democrats have this dispute, do you smile to yourself?

FORMER REP. VIN WEBER (R), Minnesota: Well, this is a tough environment for Republicans, so we're not doing a whole lot of smiling. But I have to say, I looked at the primary last night in West Virginia, and it really struck me.

Here we have, as Governor Romer points out, a presumptive Democrat nominee -- I may not be quite as strong in my view as he is about that, because delegates can change their minds -- but he's clearly the likely Democrat nominee, and the media certainly has been proclaiming him as such for a long, long time now. And yet he gets beat 2.5-to-1 in the state of West Virginia.

And the exit polling coming out of West Virginia shows that he has significant problems with conservative Democrats, large blocks of the voting public. And we saw that in Pennsylvania and Ohio, as well.

So I take no great delight in it, other than to say the environment is going to shift somewhat as we get into the fall election. And I think the turf looks a little better for Republicans, certainly than it did in that special election last night.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let's talk about that tough environment you're alluding to.

VIN WEBER: I thought you'd like to, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: I just thought I'd get back to it. Why not? It's the third special election in a row where a solid Republican seat has gone to a Democrat. Nobody is saying it's good news.

VIN WEBER: Oh, no.

GWEN IFILL: Why did it happen?

VIN WEBER: First of all, there's no silver lining. It was a bad night. It was a bad loss. The loss of those three in a row, you can't sugarcoat that in any way. It's a bad sign for Republicans.

The only thing I would say is it is much more at this point a referendum on the Bush administration and the direction of the country under the Bush administration than it is on the individual candidates involved.

That's not good for Republicans. The good news is, as I just started to say, in the fall, it's not going to be a referendum on the Bush administration. It's going to be a choice between Senator McCain and, if Governor Romer is right, Senator Obama.

That is a much more level playing field for us. We see that Senator McCain has great appeal with independents. He has great appeal with conservative Democrats. And that will create a different playing field in those congressional races.

So we've got big wake-up calls in these three special elections, but we have some reason to believe we can overcome some of these difficulties once we become the McCain party in the fall.

GWEN IFILL: Tom Cole, the head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said today that, at some point, one has to wonder whether it's the brand. And in the case of Mississippi, where the Democrat, Childers, beat the Republican, Davis, is it the brand? Is it the...

VIN WEBER: Well, the Republicans are suffering from a number of problems, as they did in the 2006 election. There was corruption in the Congress, overspending, which really alienates the Republican base, the unpopular war in Iraq, probably some others, too, but those are the big ones.

My only point is: That's going to change, as the presidential race develops and we have a big debate between two presidential candidates. The face of the Republican Party is going to be John McCain.

Democrats sweep special elections

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz
The Republicans have an incredibly big problem. And we are going to do really well this fall as a result.

GWEN IFILL: Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz, I'm curious about your response to that, but I also want to ask about another setback, I suppose, for your candidate today, in that NARAL, the abortion rights PAC that decided to endorse Senator Obama, what's your sense about what that does for your campaign or to your campaign?

REP. DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Well, just to address what Vin said, the referendum that we will have in the fall is absolutely on the Bush administration, because Senator McCain is running essentially for a third Bush term.

And I'm really happy that I'm sure that I can agree, that Governor Romer and I do agree that we need to make sure that our candidate, no matter who it is, is in the strongest possible position to help all of our congressional candidates.

But the Republican brand is absolutely tarnished. Illinois 14, that was formerly held by Speaker Hastert, you have Louisiana 6, now held by Don Cazayoux, hasn't been held by a Democrat in 34 years, and now, last night, Travis Childers' victory, President Bush got over 60 percent of the vote in all three of those congressional districts.

It would be one thing to say that it's just President Bush and people's feelings about the direction he's taking this country. But when you're talking about Democrats winning seats that are in the 30s for Democratic performance, then it goes much deeper than that.

The Republicans have an incredibly big problem. And we are going to do really well this fall as a result.

We have over 50 seats that we've targeted. And the Republicans threw everything they had last night at Travis Childers. And he came out on top, because Americans are yearning to move this country in a new direction and get away from the corporate interests that the Republicans have focused so clearly on. They want the government to focus on the American family and the working family.

Obama's negatives may fade

Former Gov. Roy Romer
I want to unify this party, and I think we have a process, and we're going to, in the next three weeks, decide who that candidate is, and I'm very convinced it's going to be Obama.

GWEN IFILL: And pardon me, the NARAL?

REP. DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: As far as Senator Clinton's -- as far as the endorsement by NARAL, I can tell you that I believe, as do the vast majority of my female colleagues, that NARAL made an incredibly big mistake, that their decision was absolutely out of step with the thousands of members of NARAL.

And I think that they are going to get some really strong -- they are already receiving incredibly strong pushback. Senator Clinton has a lifetime record of advocacy for a woman's right to choose, and the decision that NARAL made today was a mistake.

GWEN IFILL: Governor Romer?

ROY ROMER: Well, I think it still doesn't touch the basic issue. I like the endorsement. But let me go back to the basic issue that everybody is reading out of West Virginia.

Look, I want to unify this party, and I think we have a process, and we're going to, in the next three weeks, decide who that candidate is, and I'm very convinced it's going to be Obama.

Let me tell you, I'm very optimistic about his appeal to the lower-income people of this country. In Colorado, a whole lot of them voted for him.

But let me tell you the negative on him is based on falsehood. This is what is so optimistic. They don't know Barack Obama.

If you do the exit polls, you do focus groups, they have some misconceptions about him. And as they get to know him, they are going to find that his life story is their life story. And I think there's a very optimistic future for this candidate representing those people who are disaffected in that vote.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you this.

Let me ask you this, and then I'll come back to you, Mr. Weber, which is, when Hillary Clinton has said -- she said last night and her spokespeople said today that she is the stronger nominee and she's the one who can beat John McCain. Does she undercut that argument somewhat and hurt him for the fall if he were the nominee?

ROY ROMER: No. No, if you look at the record of the eight or nine months of this primary, Obama has accumulated the most delegates, the most total votes, and the more states.

I think that there is a very vibrant, exciting candidacy here. He's drawing out new people into the Democratic Party, and I'm very optimistic.

There's a lot of people who are using false information to describe Barack Obama. That's what a campaign is about, is letting them really get to know him. And when they get to know him, they're going to be excited about he represents their story.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Weber, you wanted to respond?

VIN WEBER: Well, there are also some things that people know about -- think they know about Senator Obama on the positive side that are not true. He has not yet been clearly identified as the most liberal United States senator, according to the National Journal.

Sixty percent of the people in the country are against the tax increase, and only 51 percent think Barack Obama will support a tax increase. He's clearly on record, for months and months, in favor of a massive tax increase.

When people find out that he is not this non-ideological, post-partisan figure, but, really, the most left-wing Democrat to be nominated at least since George McGovern, that's going to change a lot of people's attitudes negatively toward him.

GWEN IFILL: Congresswoman, I wonder if Hillary Clinton -- many people accuse her of just running out the string here. She's going to go through the next five primaries to say that she did and then drop out or make a further decision. What do you say to people who make that argument to you?

REP. DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: What I say is that we have four states and a territory that have left to vote. We have not gone this late into a presidential nominating process in many, many decades. And we need to make sure that the nominee is selected by the voters in all 50 states.

We have an opportunity for four more states, plus Puerto Rico, to cast their ballots, and we need to let the nomination process unfold.

Look, at the end of the -- normally, in a presidential cycle, when one candidate has clearly won an election, the other candidate consistently begins losing primaries. And that is not the case here.

If the race were over, if the voters wanted the race to be over, then they would be clearly, you know, dramatically shifting to Senator Obama. And that is not happening.

GWEN IFILL: All right.

REP. DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Senator Clinton won last night. She will win next Tuesday. She will win in Puerto Rico. And the case needs to be made to the super-delegates -- who, Governor, at the end of the day, that's who's going to decide this -- that Hillary Clinton is the strongest potential nominee in the fall, and that's what we're going to -- the case we're going to continue to make.

GWEN IFILL: Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Governor Roy Romer, Vin Weber, thank you all very much.