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Hard-Fought Democratic Race Nears the Finish Line

June 2, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
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The last remaining states to vote in the Democratic nominating race, Montana and South Dakota, head to the polls Tuesday -- and all eyes are on Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as the epic race nears a close. Political reporters discuss the candidates' next moves.

GWEN IFILL: Fifty-four primaries and 35 million votes later, the Democrats spend the last day on the trail.

After more than a year of speeches, debates and, in the end, painstaking numbers-crunching, the Democratic nominating contest winds to a close tomorrow with two final primaries in Montana and South Dakota.

Hillary Clinton, on the heels of a weekend victory in Puerto Rico, rallied supporters this afternoon in Rapid City, South Dakota.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), New York: We had a great victory in Puerto Rico yesterday, another lopsided win. I am now over 300,000 votes ahead in the popular vote.

And I am slightly behind in delegates, but we’re going to make our case to all of the delegates as to who would be the best president, number one, because that is the most important question, and, number two, who would be the stronger candidate against John McCain. And I believe, on both of those questions, I am the person who should get the support and get the nomination.

GWEN IFILL: Barack Obama has already left the primary competition behind, shifting his attention today to a general election target, Michigan.

The front-runner’s first task: to heal his divided party.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: You know, I know that, during this campaign, in the primaries there have been some worries about whether or not the Democratic Party will be divided after it’s all over.

There’s been thinking, well, you know, are the Clinton folks going to support the Obama folks? And are the Obama folks going to get together with the Clinton folks?

Let me tell you something: First of all, Senator Clinton has run an outstanding race, she is an outstanding public servant, and she and I will be working together in November.

GWEN IFILL: Obama assumed the mantle of virtual nominee after the Democratic Party’s Rules and Bylaws Committee awarded him a trove of new delegates from disputed contests in Florida and Michigan during a heated weekend meeting.

Under the agreement, both states — which were sanctioned for violating primary scheduling rules — will be seated at the party’s August convention, but each delegate will have only half a vote.

Clinton adviser and Rules Committee member Harold Ickes voted against the compromise over Michigan, where Obama did not compete.

HAROLD ICKES, Clinton Campaign Adviser: There’s been a lot of rhetoric during this meeting about democracy, and on and on and on. I am stunned that we have the gall and the chutzpa to substitute our judgment for 600,000 voters.

GWEN IFILL: At various points, committee members who supported the compromise were shouted down by Clinton supporters in the room.

ALICE HUFFMAN, DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee: And you’re about to see the best of this party in action, because it is…

ALICE HUFFMAN: Do not interrupt me. And, please, don’t do what people expect us to do.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: You took away votes!

ALICE HUFFMAN: We’ve given you some back, too.

And let me just tell you this. When we get this vote, we will leave here more united than we came.

GWEN IFILL: Obama is not out of the political woods yet. Late Saturday, he announced he had decided to leave Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, where he was a member for 20 years. The church’s current pulpit and its former pastor had become a recurring thorn in the side for the Illinois senator.

Last Sunday, a visiting priest, the Revered Michael Pfleger, mocked Hillary Clinton.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: It’s clear that now that I am a candidate for president, every time something is said in the church by anyone associated with Trinity, including guest pastors, the remarks will be imputed to me, even if they totally conflict with my long-held views, statements, and principles.

GWEN IFILL: Clinton’s 68 percent to 32 percent win in Puerto Rico provided a psychological boost for her flagging campaign.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: You voted for the person you believe will be the stronger nominee and the strongest president and you are not alone. You are joining millions of people across the United States, more than 17.6 million, plus the votes that we’ve received today, people who don’t always make the headlines, who don’t always feel like your voices are being heard. I think about these people all the time, because that’s who I care most about.

GWEN IFILL: But Obama still leads the overall delegate count by more than 150 and grows ever closer every day to the number of delegates needed to clinch the nomination.

On the Republican side, John McCain has turned all his attention to Obama, criticizing him today before the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee. He said Obama is too willing to negotiate with enemies of Israel.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: We hear talk of a meeting with the Iranian leadership offered up as if it were some sudden inspiration, a bold new idea that somehow nobody has ever thought of before.

Yet it’s hard to see what such a summit with President Ahmadinejad would actually gain, except an earful of anti-Semitic rants and a worldwide audience for a man who denies one Holocaust and talks before frenzied crowds about starting another.

Such a spectacle would harm Iranian moderates and dissidents, as the radicals and hard-liners strengthen their position and suddenly acquire the appearance of respectability.

GWEN IFILL: McCain travels to Tennessee and Louisiana tomorrow.

Obama plans an election night rally in Minneapolis, the site of this summer’s Republican nominating convention.

And Clinton will speak to supporters in her home state of New York.

Analysis of the rulings

Karen Tumulty
TIME Magazine
The voting is going to be done. And after that, they think it's time for everybody to make their commitments and begin looking forward to the November election.

GWEN IFILL: For a look at what's ahead, we're joined by Karen Tumulty, national political correspondent for Time magazine, and Adam Nagourney, chief political writer for the New York Times.

Karen, here in Washington today, it felt like there were a lot of closed-door meetings going on and a few public announcements. Is that the end game?

KAREN TUMULTY, Time Magazine: I think it is. I think it is. And I think the people to watch right now are Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, and Harry Reid, the Senate leader.

Most of these uncommitted super-delegates are House and Senate members. And Reid and Pelosi have made it very clear they want this over with tomorrow.

The voting is going to be done. And after that, they think it's time for everybody to make their commitments and begin looking forward to the November election.

GWEN IFILL: So they want the election results to come in tomorrow night and some decisions to be made, if not tomorrow night, by Wednesday?

KAREN TUMULTY: Very quickly, I think, in the next day or two that follow the election.

GWEN IFILL: Is that what you're hearing as well, Adam?

ADAM NAGOURNEY, Chief Political Correspondent, New York Times: Yes, I think the two leaders in Congress want the undecided super-delegates to make their decisions, I think, starting Wednesday or Thursday.

And frankly, Gwen, I don't think they're going to need that much of a push. I think a lot of them are ready to go. I think we'll see some of them going as soon as tomorrow.

I think the Obama campaign is making an effort, trying to get this done as soon as possible. So my guess is that by, if not by tomorrow night, certainly by Wednesday, sometime Wednesday, Senator Obama will have gone over the, what is it, 2,118 line and will be able to claim the Democratic nomination.

A tarnished nomination?

Adam Nagourney
The New York Times
This has got to be the most contested primary I've ever covered ... and there's very intense feelings on both sides. And I think we saw some exhibits of that at some of the outpouring of emotion at the meeting in Washington over the weekend.

GWEN IFILL: Now, Adam, as we watched what happened this weekend with the Democrats and their big, contentious meeting, I wonder if a nomination that Senator Obama is poised to claim isn't going to be kind of a bruised one?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: He's got some work to do; I think there's no question about it.

You know, this has got to be the most contested primary I've ever covered, certainly the longest lasting, and there's very intense feelings on both sides. And I think we saw some exhibits of that at some of the outpouring of emotion at the meeting in Washington over the weekend.

Two things to keep in mind. One is the people in that room, while certainly representative of a portion of Mrs. Clinton's supporters angry at what happened in Michigan and Florida, were the most intense of her supporters.

They were, to a large extent, people who had bussed up from Florida and spent the day during a meeting that most people might find kind of boring for a Saturday afternoon, though you couldn't tell at the end of it. That's part of it.

The other part of it is the choice is not going to be, in the end, between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. It's going to be between Clinton and Senator John McCain. And a lot of these voters are very Democratic voters.

And they are going to be, in the end, making a decision about things like Supreme Court, the war, taxes, and there will be some lingering stuff. And Obama has got to deal with this. But I'm not quite sure it's going to be as damaged as it might have looked on Saturday night.

GWEN IFILL: Now, Karen, how much of this is emotion? And how much will practicality rule of the day?

KAREN TUMULTY: Well, you know, it's not unusual for supporters at the end of a long and bruising primary -- and, as Adam says, this has been longer and more bruising than most -- to feel this way.

And you hear a lot of pundits, even party leaders, pointing to polls that suggest that a third or more of Hillary Clinton supporters will say that, in November, they will not vote for Barack Obama.

But if you look back at history, if you look back at the polling that was done, say, of people who voted for Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party in 1976, or people who voted, you know, in 1984 for Gary Hart, you often find these kinds of percentages, somewhere between 30 percent and 40 percent, saying, "I am not going to support that other person."

Whether the party comes together in many ways depends more on the loser than the winner of this primary. I think that Hillary Clinton's supporters are going to be looking to her for some signals, in terms of how enthusiastic she is about Barack Obama's candidacy and how much she campaigns for him.

Uniting the party

Karen Tumulty
TIME Magazine
The party ... needs women voters. They are the stalwarts of the Democratic Party.

GWEN IFILL: Hey, Adam, in spite of all of this talk so far about Hillary Clinton going to the very, very end, has she been sending any signals that she's willing to be a good soldier, if this should end the way it looks tomorrow night?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: There's been some ambivalence out of her camp. As you saw, Harold Ickes made some mention about this going to the convention.

And we interviewed her yesterday. She didn't take the opportunity to sort of push him back. But I think that, if you read the language coming out of the Clinton campaign, I think it's unlikely that it's going to go that far.

And I think the reality is, at a certain point, there's going to be a coalescing of the party around Senator Obama. And I think that Senator Clinton is very, very strongly committed to winning the White House back to the Democrats. So I would be really surprised if this went on for much longer, frankly.

GWEN IFILL: What about women voters, Karen? Are they still -- is the resentment, this sort of thing, even if they might in the end stay with the Democrat, is that the sort of thing that can undermine the party in the long run?

KAREN TUMULTY: Well, the party, as you know, needs women voters. They are the stalwarts of the Democratic Party. And so, like I said, I do think they will be looking to Hillary Clinton for some clues as to how she feels about this process going forward.

But they will be the single group of voters, I think, that Barack Obama has the most work he has to do with.

GWEN IFILL: So, Adam, after this weekend, kind of raucous meeting, does the Democratic Party have some fissures that it's got to heal? For instance, they set out to sanction Michigan and Florida for breaking the rules, but ended up giving them kind of half of their voting power on the floor of the convention.

What's to stop states from coming back and trying to leapfrog four years from now saying, "Well, we'll take our chances"?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: Yes, I mean, the nominating calendar, which the Democratic Party tried to change again this year, is a mess. I mean, I don't think anyone would argue that it's really just been a car crash from the start to finish.

The one good side is that lots of people have been able to vote, lots of states have participated.

In terms of states breaking the rules in the future, assuming that they don't do some major revision in the calendar, you know, if you're a state, you can look and say, "OK, well, in the end, Michigan and Florida ended up getting seated at the convention."

On the other hand, the states ended up having very little impact on the selection of a nominee. If Michigan and Florida had, say, held their primaries in late February, I think they would have had a lot more impact on the identity of the nominee than they do now.

In fact, if they held them on February 5th, which was originally supposed to be the date, I think they would have had more impact.

GWEN IFILL: Boy, February sounds like a long time ago now.


Preparing for November

Adam Nagourney
The New York Times
I can't remember an election where we've had two candidates -- again, assuming Obama is going to be the Democratic nominee -- who have such severe differences of opinion on every single, major issue facing the United States today.

GWEN IFILL: Yes, doesn't it though?

So, Karen, now, we've talked about what the challenges are for Hillary Clinton, the immediate challenges. How about for Barack Obama?

He had to resign from his church this weekend. He had started out defending the church, defending his community, saying denouncing his pastor would be like denouncing the black community. He ended up not only denouncing his pastor, but withdrawing from his church.

How does he not know that there are other hurdles ahead?

KAREN TUMULTY: There are a lot of other hurdles ahead. I mean, the advantage here would be that he will only be fighting a war now on one front instead of two.

But I think, increasingly, these sorts of things are going to come up. They will be financed very much by, you know, the Republican machine. And so there will be a lot of force going into these charges.

And I think, as well, that now that we would be getting into a general election campaign, there's going to be a lot more focus on the issues, a lot more of these two candidates taking each other's positions apart on the issues, as we heard from Senator McCain today in front of AIPAC.

GWEN IFILL: Are you seeing the same thing, Adam, that after some point now, when it's just a Republican against a Democrat, that we're going to see far more focus on the things they disagree about, because there are so many more things that they disagree about?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: You know, I honestly -- Gwen, I can't remember an election where we've had two candidates -- again, assuming Obama is going to be the Democratic nominee -- who have such severe differences of opinion on every single, major issue facing the United States today.

You know, over the past couple elections, you've seen this sort of -- you know, with Bill Clinton in 1996 -- and to some extent with Al Gore in 2000 and Kerry in 2004 -- an attempt to sort of blur the differences between the two sides a little bit.

I mean, that speech that you saw before on -- that you showed before on Iran, it's just one of many differences, the war in Iraq, tax cuts, I mean, to a lesser extent, the environment.

But there's going to be a huge difference for voters. And I think that this will be an election that will be based more on issues than any we've covered in a long time.

GWEN IFILL: Hey, Adam, quickly, which closed doors will you be watching tomorrow?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: I think I'll be watching on the Senate tomorrow, is what I'll be watching.

GWEN IFILL: You, Karen?

KAREN TUMULTY: I think that's a good bet, as well.

GWEN IFILL: OK. Thank you both very much.