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As Democrats Battle On, Shields and Brooks Size Up Tactics

April 25, 2008 at 6:15 PM EDT
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Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are turning their attention to Indiana and North Carolina as the battle for the Democratic nomination rolls on while GOP Sen. John McCain has sought to hone his political message on the campaign trail. Analysts Mark Shields and David Brooks discuss the week's political news.

RAY SUAREZ: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks, who joins us tonight from Charleston, South Carolina.

Mark, I want to get from you and David to begin tonight your lay of the land as the candidates are propelled out of Pennsylvania by the results there.

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Well, propelled is the key word. I mean, Hillary Clinton got a big boost out of Pennsylvania. And with Barack Obama with six weeks to address the problems of Ohio, they went unaddressed or at least they went unremedied.

And he still did very badly with working-class voters, in particular white working-class voters in Pennsylvania, which is in stark contrast to what he’d done in Wisconsin, in Maryland, in Virginia, in Connecticut with union members, white men, white voters. So it’s a problem that has been unique to both Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Going into Indiana, I think the question is to whether Barack Obama is going to win this nomination or whether he’s going to corner the nomination and just get it by attrition over an extended period of time all the way through Montana to the end of the season.

If he wins Indiana and North Carolina both, and I think that’s a major “if” at this point, I think the nomination will come to him and he will be seen as the winner, rather than somebody who just does it by being the last survivor, the last standing candidate.

For Hillary Clinton, it bought her time, it bought her some money. She’s got enough money now to compete in North Carolina. She’s got probably her top organizer, Ace Smith, who ran California for her, ran Texas, now running North Carolina. They’re taking it seriously.

And I think, you know, it’s a real ballgame between now and the 6th.

Demographics trump gaffes

David Brooks
New York Times
I'd be worried if I were Barack Obama in Indiana ... if there's one pattern we've seen in week after week, primary after primary, it's that Hillary does well among the late-deciders. And so he's got to work hard.

RAY SUAREZ: David, does Indiana offer an opportunity to rewrite the playbook that didn't work in Pennsylvania, to do some things better? Because there are some similarities between the two places.

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Yes, there are some similarities. I'd be worried if I were Barack Obama in Indiana. He's got a very slim lead, according to the polls. And if there's one pattern we've seen in week after week, primary after primary, it's that Hillary does well among the late-deciders. And so he's got to work hard.

Having said that, I have a little different read on the demography. I think the campaigning has scarcely mattered. In race after race, among Catholics, among white men, among older women, the demography is king.

They've drawn essentially the same results from the same demographic groups in state after state. The one exception is Wisconsin. I think, in places like Maryland and Virginia, you have these extraordinarily affluent electorates where Obama did well.

But if you look at California, you look in New Hampshire, you look in Pennsylvania, if you're looking at the white working class, high school-educated voters, she does very well.

And what strikes me about this whole race is the campaigns scarcely matter. They can do well in debates; they can do bad in debates; they can have gaffes. They don't really affect their own people.

And Barack Obama spent weeks trying to dislodge white working-class voters away from Hillary Clinton, changed his whole campaign style, ran all these ads, appeared on countless factory floors, ate a lot of fatty foods, didn't do anything for him.

So he's got to find some way to actually change the dynamic of the campaign. So far, demography is king and the campaigning and the politics hasn't really affected things.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you have any quick impressions on why that is, though, why a woman who it was revealed during the Pennsylvania campaign earned with her husband $109 million in the last several years -- everybody talked about Obama's Columbia and Harvard, but she went to Wellesley and Yale -- how did she become the shot-and-a-beer candidate?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I would say, if you look at social trends, we've just seen a widening between the college-educated and the high school-educated, widening divorce rates, widening voting rates, widening obesity rates, widening gap in attitudes about social trust.

So these patterns, this difference between high school-educated and college-educated is utterly familiar to people who study retail trends and the niche-ification and segmentation of America.

And why certain people like Whole Foods and why others like Wal-Mart, basically, what you have is two separate communities. And they have mental maps, and some people resonate with those mental maps.

Hillary Clinton, I think because she talks about resilience, resonates with a certain demographic. Barack Obama, with his secular movement, resonates with a different demographic. But the reasons are extremely complicated and very hard to change.

Obama needs to highlight roots

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
(Obama) has to assemble, in a strange way, the same coalition that Robert Kennedy did 40 years ago in Indiana, the last time Indiana counted, and that is working-class voters and minority voters


MARK SHIELDS: Well, I just want to point out to David that Obama carried union voters in the states I mentioned, Connecticut, Virginia and Maryland, in addition to Wisconsin, by over 20 points, as well. I mean, it wasn't just -- this wasn't just the landed gentry we're talking about who decided to vote Democratic today.

I think, Ray, the point you raise, the question with David, is it's a fault and a failing of the Obama campaign. I mean, this is a fellow who came out of Harvard and out of Columbia, and with his credentials, and Harvard Law School, could have written a ticket. Instead, he went to the south side of Chicago.

This is somebody who worked as a Saul Alinsky organizer with unemployed workers. That has not come through as part of his persona in this campaign. It seems to be an appendage; it ought to be the definition of him.

This is a guy whose mother was on food stamps. I mean, this is not somebody who, you know, went to cotillions and kind of lived the life of the professional intern at places. So I think the campaign has failed to do it.

One group, demographic, it cannot be ignored, is new voters. As he was losing Pennsylvania by 9.2 percent -- rock-solid victory for Hillary Clinton last Tuesday -- among new voters, Ray, 300,000 of them, Obama was carrying them by 23 points.

So, I mean, that's a change, and a major change, going in. But he has to reconnect. He has to assemble, in a strange way, the same coalition that Robert Kennedy did 40 years ago in Indiana, the last time Indiana counted, and that is working-class voters and minority voters. And that's his coalition of victory there.

Reverend Wright speaks up

David Brooks
New York Times
I think it's hard, at this late stage, to appear as something different than you've been for the past four or five months.

RAY SUAREZ: David, tonight on PBS the Reverend Jeremiah Wright will re-emerge, explaining himself on television, first televised interview. Is this a problem for Obama, good for Obama, an opportunity to further separate the two? How do you read it?

DAVID BROOKS: Oh, I can't see it's a good thing for Obama. But I confess, if I look at the polling after Jeremiah Wright and before Jeremiah Wright, I really don't see a big difference.

I don't see a big difference after the "bitter"-gate comments from San Francisco; I don't see a big difference in Hillary Clinton when she made those comments about the Tuzla airport.

I think what you see is a Democratic electorate -- and, remember, this has been going on for a while -- who has made up their mind. They know these people pretty well.

And I haven't seen any sharp shifts within any significant demographic group one way or the other affected by one scandal or another. People have a sense of who these people are already. And I think it's hard, at this late stage, to appear as something different than you've been for the past four or five months.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, Indiana, I think is a little different case for Obama, in the sense that he's not some mysterious stranger with an exotic name just magically appearing. He's been the next state's senator. There is a shared media market, especially in northwestern Indiana.

Now, there are tensions between Indiana and Illinois, as anybody knows who's been in any of the state. But I think he -- there's a familiarity there that should give him more of an advantage than he's had certainly in either Ohio or Pennsylvania.

I think, in answer to your question about Reverend Wright, you know, a case of serious but un-painful laryngitis would have been the most helpful thing for the Obama campaign. He's lucky that he chose the venue, I think, of Bill Moyers rather than a more confrontational one, a "60 Minutes" or a show like that.

But it's hard for me to believe, as Reverend Wright talks, that it's going to be helpful, as Obama is trying to convince people he shares their values, he's like them. Reverend Wright, fairly or unfairly, has become a source of different-ness about Obama.

McCain strikes a contrast with Bush

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
If there's one thing (President Bush) is universally condemned for was the mishandling of Katrina. And John McCain established daylight between himself and George Bush on Katrina.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Mark, while Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama continue their long war of attrition, John McCain's running a presidential campaign...


RAY SUAREZ: ... headed through the South this week, talking about poverty, talking about extending the benefits of the American economy to people who've often been forgotten or left out. How's that working for him?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think it's working fine. He's getting wonderful local press wherever he goes. John McCain's message seems to be, "I'm here from Washington to talk about poverty, and the government can't help you."

But in New Orleans, he took a very courageous stand. He came out against George W. Bush.

George W. Bush has just won the gold in American presidential history. He's gone from the highest point ever recorded for a Gallup poll in favorable ratings to the lowest, behind Harry Truman, Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon at the nadir of their careers.

And if there's one thing he is universally condemned for was the mishandling of Katrina. And John McCain established daylight between himself and George Bush on Katrina.

And I think the tour is probably, you know, on balance, help for him, not as good as the Pennsylvania results were, because it means that the race goes on.

RAY SUAREZ: David, are we going to see Senator McCain painting those differences between himself and the president more as the year wears on toward November?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, absolutely. McCain's entire incentive in the fall is to downplay ideological differences. If it's a straight Democratic-versus-Republican race, it doesn't matter who the Democratic candidate is. The Democrats are going to win. So McCain has to muddy the ideological waters.

I think Obama, who I still think will be the nominee, his incentive is to make the ideological waters very stark, to say, "This is Democrats versus Republicans. You've seen the Republicans; now let's have something new."

So what McCain is going to spend time doing is what he did this week, is to try to give a new picture of the Republican Party.

I think he's made some important steps. I still think he has a long way to go. I still don't see a coherent narrative of where the country is and where he hopes to take it.

I think he made some extremely moving personal remarks as he visited these different places, but I still don't see one storyline that people are going to remember about John McCain when they think about the country's domestic future.

RAY SUAREZ: David Brooks in South Carolina, Mark, good to see you right here. Have a good weekend, both of you.