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Democratic Fight Heads into Critical N.C., Ind. Contests

May 5, 2008 at 6:30 PM EDT
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Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton made their final pitches to voters in Indiana and North Carolina, looking for support ahead of Tuesday's primary contests. Two correspondents fresh off the campaign trail discuss whether these two states can change the dynamics of the Democratic race.

GWEN IFILL: Another Tuesday, another decision day tomorrow in the Democratic race to the nominating finish line.

With yet another pair of critical primaries on tap tomorrow, Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama competed for last-minute votes today in both Indiana and North Carolina. In the Hoosier State, one new poll gives Clinton a six-point edge, while the latest North Carolina survey has Obama leading by seven percentage points.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), Presidential Candidate: Good to see you, sir.

GWEN IFILL: But both candidates are campaigning as if in a dead heat, focusing largely on a debate over the best way to bring down gas prices.

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), Presidential Candidate: Good morning, Pitt County.

GWEN IFILL: In North Carolina today, Clinton pushed her plan to suspend gas taxes for the summer, and tax oil companies instead.

HILLARY CLINTON: I’ll tell you, right now, I know what these gas prices are doing to people. I know what they’re doing to farmers, and truckers, and people who commute long distances, people who live in the country and have to drive just to get nearly anywhere.

And what I want to do is provide some immediate relief. I want the oil companies to pay the gas tax this summer out of their record profit, because they need to be part of the solution, instead of the problem.

HILLARY CLINTON: And that’s a difference that I have with both Senator Obama and Senator McCain. Senator Obama doesn’t want to do anything. Senator McCain says, OK, fine, take off the gas tax, but don’t pay for it.

No, we can’t do that, because that money can’t go back into the deficit, making it bigger, or into depriving the Highway Trust Fund of money, so you can’t prepare your roads here in North Carolina. So, I think I have got the right approach. Let’s listen to what people are telling us. I don’t think folks in Washington listen enough.

BARACK OBAMA: How are you?

GWEN IFILL: Obama, leaving an Indiana construction site today, told reporters the tax holiday plan won’t work, and that Clinton is pandering to cash-strapped voters.

BARACK OBAMA: You know, about 30 cents per day, $28 dollars, and — but that’s only assuming that the oil companies don’t raise the prices. And we tried this in Illinois. Back in 2000, I voted for a proposal like this. And, six months later, we chose not to renew it, because we were losing revenue, but the oil companies were gaining revenue. And it wasn’t helping consumers. The money wasn’t getting there.

So, we need to be honest with the American people about how we’re going to solve these problems. And that’s my top priority as president. And that’s why we’re out here fighting so hard for every vote, because we want to make sure that there is an advocate in Washington who is telling people the truth and fighting for them.

QUESTION: Do you think the gas tax holiday, is that more of a — are you saying more a gimmick than…

BARACK OBAMA: It’s a stunt. It’s what Washington does. This isn’t the first time it’s proposed. It’s proposed every two years. Every time there’s an election coming up, right before the summer, somebody proposes this.

And there is not a single person who — out there who has studied the oil markets who believes that this is actually going solve the problem.

GWEN IFILL: Presumptive Republican nominee John McCain, who has remained mostly on the sidelines during the last several weeks, edged his way back into the gas tax debate at an Arizona news conference.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), Presidential Candidate: Finally, on the now very famous gas tax holiday, again, I find people who are the wealthiest who are most dismissive of a plan to give low-income Americans a little bit of a holiday for three months, so they would have something a little more to give to their children, and enjoy their summer a little more.

“Thirty dollars?” some say. Thirty dollars means nothing to a lot of economists. I understand that. It means a lot to some low-income Americans.

GWEN IFILL: The two Democrats are fighting to the finish on multiple issues and platforms.

On Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” Tim Russert asked Obama about Clinton’s comments that the U.S. would totally obliterate Iran if it attacked Israel.

TIM RUSSERT, Host, “Meet The Press”: “Obliterate them,” what do you think of that language?

BARACK OBAMA: Well, it’s not the language that we need right now, and I think it’s language that’s reflective of George Bush, that we have had a foreign policy of bluster and saber-rattling and tough talk. And, in the meantime, we make a series of strategic decisions that actually strengthen Iran.

GWEN IFILL: Clinton, a guest on ABC’s “This Week,” was asked by host George Stephanopoulos to respond.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, Host, “This Week”: He said, “It’s not the language we need right now, and I think it’s reflective of George W. Bush.”

HILLARY CLINTON: Well, the question originally, as some may remember, was, what would we do if Iran got a nuclear weapon and attacked Israel? And I think we have to be very clear about what we would do. I don’t think it’s time to equivocate about what we would do. They have to know that they would face massive retaliation.

Candidates prepare for next test

Dan Balz
The Washington Post
I think everybody believes that Indiana is a very close, tight race, a tossup at this point, and one that Hillary Clinton very much needs to win. North Carolina looks and has been a state that is favorable toward Senator Obama.

GWEN IFILL: One hundred and eighty-seven delegates, slightly less than half of those left to be picked up this primary season, are up for grabs tomorrow, 115 coming from North Carolina, 72 from Indiana.

A running count maintained by the Associated Press currently gives Obama a 138-delegate lead over Clinton. That includes pledged and party- selected superdelegates.

Now for more on the stakes in tomorrow's voting, we're joined by Karen Tumulty, national political correspondent for TIME magazine, just back from covering the Obama campaign in Indiana, and Dan Balz, chief political reporter for The Washington Post. He's just completed three days covering the Clinton campaign.

GWEN IFILL: Dan, we saw today a whole raft of new shows which show, depending on which you choose to believe, Obama is ahead, Clinton is ahead, Obama is hurt, Clinton is not. I...

Sort it out for me.

DAN BALZ, Chief Political Reporter, The Washington Post: Well, it is another confusing pre-primary day, in which the polls are probably slightly off.

But, look, I think everybody believes that Indiana is a very close, tight race, a tossup at this point, and one that Hillary Clinton very much needs to win. North Carolina looks and has been a state that is favorable toward Senator Obama. I think the real question is how much ground Senator Clinton has made up in North Carolina.

The fact that they were both back there today indicates that this state, which I think a lot of people had already conceded to Obama, is a more competitive environment, though still favorable to him.

GWEN IFILL: Karen, you were -- you spent the last couple days on the road with the Obama campaign, what is the mood like?

KAREN TUMULTY, National Political Correspondent, Time: It was really interesting mood, an interesting setting.

What we have come to get used to with Barack Obama are these gigantic, you know, rock-concert-sized rallies, you know, 10,000 people. And, in Indiana, I think he is -- there is a real new tone there. I mean, he did two picnics. He went to a roller rink. He campaigns in neighborhoods, meeting people individually.

And I think this is in part because I think they have decided there are real limits to these gigantic events, and that you really do need to make personal contact with people.

But I also think there is a determined effort to put him into settings, in the wake of this Reverend Wright controversy, that really give people a chance to sort of see him in settings that look very familiar to them.

GWEN IFILL: So, you saw him with his family. You saw him in small restaurants, places like that?

KAREN TUMULTY: That's right.

And, in fact, he was campaigning not only with his wife, but with his children, for the first time since January.

GWEN IFILL: With the Clinton campaign -- you were out with them.

DAN BALZ: Right.

GWEN IFILL: Is the mood different there as well?

DAN BALZ: Well, the mood there is I think one that is -- that they are hopeful. They understand, she certainly understands, you know, that her back is against the wall and that she has to continue in a sense to overperform.

But I think that their feeling is that -- that this gas tax issue -- and we have rarely see an issue in which the candidates, not only disagree, but are absolutely convinced that the politics of the issue is on their side. They -- the Clinton people believe two things, one that, A, the salience of economic issues in general is helpful to her, because she does better with voters who care most about the economy than he does, and, second, that the gas tax issue is cutting with the very voters that she wants to get a big turnout with.

Gas tax remains an issue

Karen Tumulty
On Clinton's part, it is an effort, as you said, to portray her as a fighter, as somebody who gets down into the nitty-gritty of policy. And, for Barack Obama, this is a really important way for him to try and portray himself as a truth-teller.

GWEN IFILL: Is the gas tax issue cutting, Karen?

KAREN TUMULTY: You know, I don't think that this gas tax issue is about the gas tax at all. It's really an effort by both candidates to tell us something about themselves.

On Hillary Clinton's part, it is an effort, as you said, to portray her as a fighter, as somebody who gets down into the nitty-gritty of policy. And, for Barack Obama, this is a really important way for him to try and portray himself as a truth-teller, because, of course, you know, basically, the majority of economic opinion is on his side on this.

GWEN IFILL: But it also has the added advantage of allowing him to define her as a panderer.

KAREN TUMULTY: Exactly. Exactly.

GWEN IFILL: Is that what is happening on her side as well; she is using it to define him, as well as herself, maybe?

DAN BALZ: Well, she's using it to define him as somebody who doesn't care about hardworking people, people who are struggling.

As she said yesterday, when she was on TV: "You know, I know all the economists don't care. I'm not -- I'm not siding with the economists. I'm siding with average people."

And the way she has framed it, which is not simply to give people some break, but also to force the oil companies to pay for it, is another way of sort of saying, "I'm on the side of average people, not on the side of big corporations."

KAREN TUMULTY: And, in Indiana, I can tell you, this issue has real salience. In the crowds that I would encounter, people were bringing it up to me to talk about what side of this they were on.

And I really didn't find a lot of support for Hillary Clinton's -- Hillary Clinton's plan.

GWEN IFILL: Oh, they were bringing it up to say it was a bad idea?

KAREN TUMULTY: That's right, and this -- this -- this sense that, you know, people were seeing it as pandering.

Margins may resolve future contests

Dan Balz
The Washington Post
Let's say Senator Obama wins both states. It will be very difficult at that point for Senator Clinton to continue to make the case that there is even a remotely viable path for her to win the nomination.

GWEN IFILL: How much -- it feels like we have sat here a lot of Monday nights talking about what was about -- the critical election that was about to happen in 24 hours.

How important, how critical Indiana and North Carolina tomorrow?

DAN BALZ: Well, they are potentially very important.

Let's say Senator Obama wins both states. It will be very difficult at that point for Senator Clinton to continue to make the case that there is even a remotely viable path for her to win the nomination.

If, on the other hand, she wins Indiana and holds his margin into the low end of the single digits, she will be able to argue that he is still not able to get the kinds of voters that he needs in a general election, that she now has the momentum, and that the issue structure of this race now favors her more than him.

GWEN IFILL: Dan talks about the kinds of voters she needs. It has become conventional wisdom now that there is a demographic lock that each candidate has on a certain group of voters.

Is there something to watch for in the outcomes in Indiana and in North Carolina that will tell us whether that holds or whether it no longer applies?

KAREN TUMULTY: Well, I think both campaigns in Indiana are going to be very closely watching the -- the part of the state that is covered by the Chicago media market.

This is where as many as 30 -- 25, 30 percent of Democratic primary voters live. And there will be a real question there as to whether Obama, who has superior name I.D., can really draw in some of these white working-class voters that he has had trouble with elsewhere.

GWEN IFILL: And, in North Carolina, they -- don't they -- they have same-day registration. Or is that in Indiana? No. They don't -- they had it until a couple days ago.

DAN BALZ: I don't think they do, but...

GWEN IFILL: But, in North Carolina, however -- in Indiana, that is -- I'm getting them all confused.

There is crossover.

DAN BALZ: Yes, there is. That's right.

And, in North Carolina, Democrats and unaffiliated voters are able to participate in the primary, as I understand it. So, you know, the turnout is always the wild card in this. I mean, both states know that there is going to be record turnout. It's the first time...

GWEN IFILL: There has already been record early voting.

DAN BALZ: Right. It's the first time in 40 years that the Indiana primary has mattered.

There is huge interest in both of these states. Voters down in these states care that they have a role to play. And they are going to turn out. As a result of that, and in part because, you know, they have never had a primary like this, nobody really knows who votes.

I talked to some of the strategists over the weekend, and one of them said to me, the truth is, there will be people voting in this Democratic primary who have never voted in a general election presidential campaign before.

So, figuring out exactly who is coming out is part of the difficulty that these campaigns have in knowing exactly where things stand.

Candidates define themselves

Karen Tumulty
The economy has become so much the focus. And it was almost a throwback to the sort of earlier iteration of the Hillary Clinton campaign, when her top priority seemed to be to prove that she would be a strong commander in chief.

GWEN IFILL: And there is a superdelegate dance which is still going on, of course. And it is almost chicken and egg. Is it the voting turnout and the voting outcome which drives the superdelegates, or are the superdelegates going to drive people's perceptions about this race?

KAREN TUMULTY: I think it goes both ways.

And some of the endorsements -- Barack Obama has continued, even as he has had a very difficult, the worst few weeks of his campaign, he has continued to chip into Hillary Clinton's lead among superdelegates.

GWEN IFILL: Why is that?

KAREN TUMULTY: You know, the most interesting one, I thought, last week was the Congressman Baron Hill of Indiana.

This is a congressman, a freshman, who has one of the most difficult races in the country come this fall. And he is, despite the fact that -- with some political peril, endorsing Barack Obama. And I think that it is a vote as to who he believes should be at the top of the ticket to help his own race.

GWEN IFILL: Does it seem that, after all of the weeks of talking about, as I think Obama puts it, pastors and snipers and other things, that a fundamental debate going on now about jobs and gas prices actually seems to be real, and it tells us something about these campaigns and how they are defining their priorities?

DAN BALZ: Well, and, also, I think the degree to which that it is a reminder that, in a long election, the terrain shifts. And, so, the ability to say, well, who is the best candidate in November when are you not entirely sure what that terrain may look like.

Eight or 10 months ago, there was so much talk about how the Iraq war would define, not only the general election, but also the outcome of the primary fight between Obama and Clinton. And now we have -- you know, it is not that Iraq is not unimportant. But, clearly, the economy and gasoline prices have risen considerably in terms of people's significance.

And, so, you know, part of this is a test for each of these candidates to be adaptable, to seize kind of the moment, and to try to drive home the message that -- as Karen said, the larger message about their candidacies using the particular issues that come to the fore.

GWEN IFILL: You know, you talked about Iraq being such a big issue.

When the candidate talked about Iran, obliterating Iran, and making this kind of umbrella area of retribution against the Middle East if Iran should interfere, that seems to have gotten not much of a ripple effect.

KAREN TUMULTY: And I think that that is because the economy has become so much the focus. And it was almost a throwback to the sort of earlier iteration of the Hillary Clinton campaign, when her top priority seemed to be to prove that she would be a strong commander in chief.

And it -- I think, you know, you saw her sort of trying to dial back a little bit on that and qualify it and remind people that the way the question was asked was specifically on the question of whether they -- whether it had attacked Israel.

GWEN IFILL: Either candidate making any predictions, or are they both in kind of a crouch until the votes start to roll in tomorrow?

DAN BALZ: She described North Carolina as a game-changer, a potential game-changer, the other day. And Bill Clinton has certainly made it clear the importance of Indiana to her.

But it sounds as though, in these final hours, they are going cautious, saying it will not necessarily decide things.

GWEN IFILL: And you agree with that, Karen?

KAREN TUMULTY: That's -- certainly, everybody does seem to be very cautious. And I think both campaigns are essentially hunkering down for a race that goes into June.

GWEN IFILL: OK, Karen Tumulty, Dan Balz, thank you both very much.

DAN BALZ: Thank you.