TOPICS > Politics

Primary Looms as Candidates Sharpen Attacks

April 17, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
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Questions of character and recent controversies took center stage at Wednesday night's Democratic debate, where Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama sought to prove their electability and appeal to Pennsylvania primary voters. Political reporters assess the state of the race and fact check the candidates' statements.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The face-off in Philadelphia. Margaret Warner has our campaign story.

MARGARET WARNER: With five days to go before the Pennsylvania primary, Hillary Clinton toured the state with her daughter, Chelsea. Barack Obama was in North Carolina, before heading back to Pennsylvania tomorrow.

Both were coming off one of their most contentious debates of the campaign.

For the first 45 minutes last night, Obama found himself playing defense against Clinton and the ABC News moderators over his recent statement about small-town values, his ties to two controversial figures, and his patriotism.

Charlie Gibson first asked about Obama’s comments that hard economic times made some blue-collar voters feel bitter and cling to guns and religion as a result.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: Well, I think there’s no doubt that I can see how people were offended. It’s not the first time that I’ve made a statement that was mangled up; it’s not going to be the last.

The point I was making was that, when people feel like Washington’s not listening to them, when they’re promised year after year, decade after decade that their economic situation is going to change and it doesn’t, then politically they end up focusing on those things that are constant, like religion.

And part of the problem is that, when those issues are exploited, we never get to solve the issues that people really have to get some relief on, whether it’s health care or education or jobs.

CHARLES GIBSON, ABC Debate Moderator: Senator Clinton?

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), New York: I don’t believe that my grandfather or my father or the many people whom I have had the privilege of knowing and meeting across Pennsylvania over many years cling to religion when Washington is not listening to them.

I think that is a fundamental sort of misunderstanding of the role of religion and faith in times that are good and times that are bad.

And I similarly don’t think that people cling to their traditions, like hunting and guns, either, when they are frustrated with the government. I just don’t believe that’s how people live their lives.

MARGARET WARNER: Gibson’s co-host, George Stephanopoulos, then asked Clinton if she thought Obama’s remarks would damage him in the fall.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC Debate Moderator: Do you think Senator Obama can beat John McCain or not?

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: Well, I think we have to beat John McCain, and I have every reason to believe we’re going to have a Democratic president and it’s going to be either Barack or me, and we’re going to make that happen.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But the question is: Do you think Senator Obama can do that? Can he win?

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: Yes, yes, yes. Now, I think that I can do a better job. I mean, obviously, that’s why I’m here.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator Obama, do you think Senator Clinton can win?

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Absolutely, and I’ve said so before. But I, too, think that I’m the better candidate. And I don’t think that surprises anybody.

MARGARET WARNER: Obama also was pressed again about incendiary comments by his former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: If you get the nomination, what will you do when those sermons are played on television again and again and again?

OBAMA: You know, the notion that somehow that the American people are going to be distracted once again by comments not made by me, but by somebody who is associated with me, that I have disowned, I think doesn’t give the American people enough credit.

MARGARET WARNER: Clinton disagreed.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: These are problems, and they raise questions in people’s minds. And so this is a legitimate area, as everything is when we run for office, for people to be exploring and trying to find answers.

Raising political liabilities

Sen. Barack Obama
I have never said that I don't wear flag pins or refuse to wear flag pins. This is the kind of manufactured issue that our politics has become obsessed with and, once again, distracts us from what should be my job when I'm commander-in-chief.

MARGARET WARNER: While most of the pressure was on Obama, Clinton was confronted by a video question from a voter on her truthfulness.

VOTER: Senator Clinton, I was in your court until a couple of weeks ago. How do you reconcile the campaign credibility that you have when you've made those comments about what happened getting off the plane in Bosnia, which totally misrepresented what really happened on that day?

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: You know, I'm embarrassed by it. I have apologized for it. I've said it was a mistake. And it is, I hope, something that you can look over because, clearly, I am proud that I went to Bosnia.

MARGARET WARNER: Asked to comment, Obama declined to criticize.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: And I think Senator Clinton deserves the right to make some errors once in a while. Obviously, I make some, as well.

MARGARET WARNER: Then it was his turn for more scrutiny, when a video clip questioner asked why he didn't wear an American flag pin.

VOTER: I am not questioning your patriotism, but all our servicemen, policemen, and EMS wear the flag. I want to know why you don't.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Well, look, I revere the American flag, and I would not be running for president if I did not revere this country.

I have never said that I don't wear flag pins or refuse to wear flag pins. This is the kind of manufactured issue that our politics has become obsessed with and, once again, distracts us from what should be my job when I'm commander-in-chief, which is going to be figuring out how we get our troops out of Iraq and how we actually make our economy better for the American people.

MARGARET WARNER: Stephanopoulos jumped in to ask Obama about his relationship to William Ayers, a member of the '60s and '70s radical Weather Underground that bombed several public buildings.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: George, but this is an example of what I'm talking about. This is a guy who lives in my neighborhood, who's a professor of English in Chicago, who I know and who I have not received some official endorsement from.

And the notion that somehow, as a consequence of me knowing somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago, when I was 8 years old, somehow reflects on me and my values doesn't make much sense, George.

MARGARET WARNER: Clinton said the issue could make Obama vulnerable to Republican attacks.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: And what they did was set bombs. And in some instances, people died. So it is -- I think it is, again, an issue that people will be asking about.

And I have no doubt -- I know Senator Obama's a good man, and I respect him greatly, but I think that this is an issue that certainly the Republicans will be raising.

MARGARET WARNER: Eventually, the debate turned to issues of policy, including the war in Iraq and middle-class tax relief, areas where Clinton and Obama largely agree.

Gibson asked Clinton if she was going to stick by her plan to withdraw one or two brigades from Iraq a month, whatever the realities on the ground.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: Yes, I am, Charlie, and here's why. You know, thankfully we have a system in our country of civilian control of the military.

I am convinced that it is in America's best interest, it is in the best interest of our military, and I even believe it is in the best interest of Iraq, that upon taking office I will ask the secretary of defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff and my security advisers to immediately put together for me a plan so that I can begin to withdraw within 60 days.

MARGARET WARNER: Gibson then asked Obama if he would do the same.

CHARLES GIBSON: So you'd give the same rock-hard pledge, that no matter what the military commanders said, you would give the order to bring them home?

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Because the commander-in-chief sets the mission, Charlie. That's not the role of the generals. Now, I will always listen to our commanders on the ground with respect to tactics.

Questioning electability

Linda Douglass
National Journal
It was the relentlessness of it, the fact that they didn't get into health care, or gas prices, or college tuition, or whatever in the beginning that I think took them aback. They were prepared for many other kinds of questions.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, for some analysis of last night's debate and a look ahead to the Pennsylvania primary, we turn to Linda Douglass, contributing editor at National Journal and host of the weekly radio program National Journal On Air.

Dan Balz, national political correspondent for the Washington Post.

And Brooks Jackson, director of, a project of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center.

Welcome, everyone.

Linda, what is the fallout? What are you hearing from Democrats you talk to, in terms of the fallout from last night's debate?

LINDA DOUGLASS, National Journal: Well, Democrats that I've talked to were just unhappy with the whole evening. There was a hostile tone, certainly for those who were for Obama. He didn't have a particularly good night; he wasn't as clear and crisp as he's been in some previous debates.

She made very good, strong points, say many people who are in her corner, but also seemed harsh and negative. So, overall, for Democrats, they were not happy with how this 90 minutes unfolded, especially before a record debate viewing audience of 10 million people.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Dan, the people you talked to in the campaigns, outside of the campaigns, do they share that assessment, that it was maybe not a great night for Obama and that it was a good, but negative night for her?

DAN BALZ, Washington Post: Well, I think the Obama campaign is a little taken aback by the kind of assessment that he had a really -- or a hard night or didn't do well.

They know he got some very, very tough questioning. I think they thought he performed reasonably well in the face of that questioning.

I think the Clinton campaign was fairly happy to see the debate unfold the way it did. You know, in a curious way, this was the first now of 21 debates in which Senator Obama was really treated like the front-runner and given the kind of tough questioning that a front-runner often gets at various points in the campaign and that Senator Clinton in some previous debates has also gotten.

So I think the Obama campaign believes they got through it. I don't think they think that there was serious damage done. But I think they realized that he went through a real grilling.

MARGARET WARNER: Were the Obama people, Linda, surprised at how much -- that the whole first 45 minutes were essentially grilling him on these four issues?

LINDA DOUGLASS: Well, certainly they expected the questions on Reverend Wright. Certainly they expected the questions on the statements that he made about small-town America being economically depressed and turning to guns and religion. They expected all of that.

But it was the relentlessness of it, the fact that they didn't get into health care, or gas prices, or college tuition, or whatever in the beginning that I think took them aback. They were prepared for many other kinds of questions.

And you could see that Obama himself was becoming irritated. But the one thing you can't do in a situation like this, if you are the candidate who feels aggrieved by how the moderators handled you, the one thing you cannot do is blame the press for the questions they ask. That never works as a tactic.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Brooks, in defending himself, based on your analysis, did Obama stretch the truth in any way?

BROOKS JACKSON, Well, yes. One of the things for which we're criticizing him is that he said that, in regard to that lapel pin, the American flag lapel pin, he said, "I never said that I had refused to wear it."

Well, in fact, less than a year ago in Iowa, he told a TV interviewer that after 9/11 he had decided not to wear the pin because it had become, in his view, a substitute for true patriotism, which is upsetting a lot of people and being talked about.

So he's engaging in a little bit of rewriting his own history.

MARGARET WARNER: Dan, was the campaign asked about that today?

DAN BALZ: I don't know that they were asked directly about that, Margaret. I think that they have been trying to move past this.

I think that their strategy has been to take sort of the culture of what unfolded last night and to try to turn it in their direction, which is to say what you saw last night was old politics, inside Washington parlor games, a focus on things that are not important to the real lives of real people, and that his campaign, in fact, represents all of the opposite of what they saw last night. That's been their approach on this.

MARGARET WARNER: Linda, do Democrats or people in the Obama campaign, for that matter, think that some of these issues are potential vulnerabilities if he were to be the nominee, that these are the kinds of things that Republicans would hammer on?

LINDA DOUGLASS: Well, they certainly are the kind of things that Republicans always hammer on. You go back to George H.W. Bush going to the flag factory in the 1988 campaign that he ran against Michael Dukakis. So patriotism is always an issue that Republicans use.

Questions about the incendiary statements of Reverend Wright certainly is an issue that the Clinton campaign is pushing with the delegates. And it all goes to support Hillary Clinton's argument that we don't know enough about this guy; he hasn't been tested.

Which is why today the Obama campaign tried to turn that electability question around, basing it on last night's debate, saying, "But, look, she's negative. She says negative things. People don't like it. Look at her high negative numbers."

This all came down to the analysis by both campaigns today: What did this debate say about my candidate's electability?

Comparing ratings

Brooks Jackson
Nobody died in the Weather Underground bombings, except for three members of the Weather Underground, who were killed when one of their own bombs accidentally exploded in Greenwich Village.

MARGARET WARNER: Let's ask about Clinton now last night, Brooks, because in pressing the case against Obama -- in other words, she would always come in after the moderator and say, "Yes, this is an important issue, and here's why," what's your analysis show about how close to the truth those assertions were?

BROOKS JACKSON: Well, in one case, the questioners had brought up this association that Senator Obama has -- tenuous at best -- with Bill Ayers, who was a very famous radical from the 1970s and was a part of the Weather Underground, responsible for some high-profile bombings, the men's room at the Capitol, a women's room at the Pentagon, et cetera.

And Clinton pushed that a little too far, in our view. She said, "Well, people died in some of these bombings." Well, in fact, nobody died in the Weather Underground bombings, except for three members of the Weather Underground, who were killed when one of their own bombs accidentally exploded in Greenwich Village.

So she really cast this group as more violent than it really was.

MARGARET WARNER: Dan, what is the evidence about whether Clinton's attacks on Obama and the fact that many of her ads, I gather, in Pennsylvania are negative, whether that is affecting her own approval ratings, her own standing with the voters?

DAN BALZ: Well, it's hard to draw a one-to-one link between any particular moment in the campaign, but certainly the poll that we and ABC did over the weekend that came out earlier this week shows that this campaign has taken a real toll on Senator Clinton.

Her favorability ratings are the worst that we have found in 16 years or 18 years of looking at Senator Clinton, previously First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. More than half of the American people do not see her as honest and trustworthy.

This is a serious problem. It's a problem that has grown worse during the campaign. And one can only assume that, as she has had to crank up the rhetoric aimed at Senator Obama, that it has gotten worse and worse for her on that front.

Planning post-Pennsylvania strategy

Dan Balz
The Washington Post
I think they certainly recognize that the controversy over Reverend Wright is likely to be a problem in the general election. I think at this point they think they have weathered most of these in the nomination battle.

MARGARET WARNER: And so is the Obama strategy, Linda -- I mean, excuse me, the Clinton strategy, that they just want to win Pennsylvania and take care of this other problem later?


MARGARET WARNER: What's their assessment going into Pennsylvania?

LINDA DOUGLASS: Pennsylvania, it had been the intent initially of the Obama campaign to underplay Pennsylvania, to say from the beginning, "This is a state we can't win. It's the perfect demographic for her, with mostly non-college, white, working-class Catholic, all the groups that tend to vote for her."

So they were underplaying the importance of Pennsylvania. But now, because all eyes have been on that state and it's being scoured to see what evidence it might produce about Obama's electability in a general election, it is absolutely the strategy of the Clinton campaign to say, "This may well be the ballgame, Pennsylvania."

MARGARET WARNER: And, Dan, do the Obama people feel that some of these issues that were brought up last night, these personal issues or things he said or associations he's had, do they think they're really invalid or do they actually think these are potential vulnerabilities?

DAN BALZ: Well, I think they certainly recognize that the controversy over Reverend Wright is likely to be a problem in the general election. I think at this point they think they have weathered most of these in the nomination battle.

All of the polling that came out over the last few days shows no particular damage from the comments he made at the San Francisco fundraiser about how small-town Americans are bitter about their situation and cling to guns and religion and things like that.

I think they believe that -- I mean, I know they were quite worried when that erupted. I think they think that that has not been a serious problem.

But I think they do recognize that there are questions about Senator Obama, that people don't know him as well as they want people to know him, that there are false things that still are out there on the Internet that they have to kind of swat away.

But more fundamentally, there are questions that the Republicans will go after him about to raise doubts about who he really is. And I think they know that in a general election they'll have to take those on.

MARGARET WARNER: And, briefly, from the two of you at least, Linda and Dan, privately, what are the campaigns' benchmarks for success? What does each one think they have to do in Pennsylvania?

LINDA DOUGLASS: Well, I think Obama campaign believes that they have to come within single digits. Double digits looks like a much more serious win.

And I think that the Clinton campaign thinks they simply have to win, and then they are still in the fight for super-delegates' approval.


DAN BALZ: I would agree basically with that. I think that the Clinton campaign knows that it needs a victory margin in Pennsylvania that comes very close to what it was in Ohio, which was 10 points, that without that it will look as though he has made the progress and that she hasn't, and that it will -- if they're under that, then she'll be in more stress heading into North Carolina and particularly Indiana.

MARGARET WARNER: Want to offer an assessment on this, Brooks?

BROOKS JACKSON: Well, at, we're looking at the accuracy of what the candidates say and not trying to handicap their chances. So I'll pass on that, but thank you, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: Making a very important contribution. Thank you, Brooks, Dan and Linda. Thank you all.


JUDY WOODRUFF: The NewsHour goes on the road next week to Pennsylvania for that state's hotly contested primary. We'll broadcast from the studios of WQED Pittsburgh with full coverage of the issues and the voters' views.