TOPICS > Politics

Candidates Take a Breather

December 24, 2007 at 6:05 PM EDT
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Most of the candidates for the presidential primaries are taking a few days off from the campaign trail this Christmas, but the Iowa and New Hampshire news still buzzes with primary fever. The NewsHour talks to two media veterans of political campaigns about the situation.

GWEN IFILL: ‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the states not a candidate was stirring; they’re taking a break. Judy Woodruff has our presidential campaign update.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All of the candidates are taking a holiday from politics, but most will be back campaigning the day after Christmas, with just 10 days to go before the first primary votes are cast in the Iowa caucuses.

We’re joined by two seasoned campaign-watchers who’ve been tracking the races. Adam Nagourney, he’s chief political reporter for the New York Times. He joins us from Washington. He’s just back from two weeks in Iowa and New Hampshire, and he heads back to Iowa tomorrow.

Also back from Iowa is Mark Halperin, Time magazine’s senior political analyst and the author of “The Undecided Voter’s Guide to the Next President.” Mark joins us from New York where he’s spending the holidays before trekking back to Iowa on Wednesday.

Gentlemen, good to see both of you.

Holiday campaigning intrudes little

JUDY WOODRUFF: We've never had primary and caucus so close to Christmas and New Year's. How are voters handling this, Mark? Are they irritated? Are they taking it in stride?

MARK HALPERIN, Senior Political Analyst, Time Magazine: Well, just based on being in Iowa and talking to voters, I think the people who are going to come out and caucus -- because, remember, we're talking about a universe of no more than 250,000 people -- I think those people don't mind the politicking. They know the caucuses are coming up.

You do, though, regularly in Iowa run into people who aren't that aware of the caucuses, who aren't planning to go and caucus. And I think they're a little bit sick of the advertising. They're a little bit sick of seeing the news accounts.

But, again, that's not the people that the campaigns are targeting, so they don't mind offending those few who don't like it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Adam, how do you see people reacting to this campaigning right into the holiday?

ADAM NAGOURNEY, Chief Political Correspondent, New York Times: I don't think people mind. It's a complication for the candidates, though, because they have had to sort of figure out how to sort of tune their message.

Normally at this point in the campaign, you'd be probably doing in a race this tight at least some sort of attack ads or some sort of ways to draw contrasts, and that's really tough to do now. And if you turn on TV in Iowa or New Hampshire these days, you see these sort of really gauzy commercials with candidates sitting in front of Christmas trees, and opening gifts, and saying how much they love the world, and that's probably not what they want to be talking about right now.

Romney fighting two-front war

JUDY WOODRUFF: I want to ask you both about Republicans first, because there seems to be more movement there. This is a really unsettled race, not just Huckabee and McCain up; it's Romney and Giuliani having problems. Adam, what are you seeing and hearing in both of these states?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: In Iowa, all polls show -- let me back up for one second. Mitt Romney's basic strategy has been, the former governor of Massachusetts, has been to win Iowa and New Hampshire. It's a traditional strategy, and it makes a lot of sense.

In Iowa, he has been, to say the least, disrupted by the rise of Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, who, at least polls suggest, is getting all kinds of support. I think the big question to watch out for is whether, you know, the sort of groundswell of support that we think is building for Governor Huckabee can be matched by the organization that Governor Romney has very, very diligently put together over the past year.

The additional problem for Governor Romney is that in New Hampshire John McCain is showing all kinds of rise and increase in support as it comes to the New Hampshire primary. And a lot of the people think that if Mitt Romney loses in Iowa, he's going to be in even worse shape going into New Hampshire. So it's very, very complicated.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, what are you seeing in the Republican race?

MARK HALPERIN: Well, I think, in the end, probably the best thing that happened to Mitt Romney was Mike Huckabee's rise, because he had to win Iowa before, in all likelihood, in order to get the strategy that he had put in place -- Adam referred to -- worked out. He needed to win Iowa.

Now, if he does win Iowa -- and I think there's a good chance that he will -- he will get credit for it from the press, from the voters for having fought back and won it. That will be a big news story.

He's competing in Iowa with one of the best stories any of us have ever covered, this three-way, down-to-the-wire race on the Democratic side. So I think it is true that it is a two-person contest, without a doubt, in Iowa between Huckabee and Romney. Either one could win it, I believe.

And I think third place could go to any number of people. I'm not sure how much it will be worth.

As Adam said, the problem for Romney right now is he is fighting a two-front war, and he will for the next two weeks, Huckabee in Iowa and McCain in New Hampshire. He has to worry about the fact that McCain is clearly going to focus his time, as he did in 2000, not on Iowa, but on New Hampshire. And Romney has to worry about both states.

Christmas up north for McCain

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Adam, just quickly, why is John McCain doing better in New Hampshire? That sort of came out of nowhere, didn't it?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: You know, John McCain's always had a sort of connection with New Hampshire. Remember, he won there in 2000 by 18 points. You know, normally I would say that he appeals to independent voters there who can vote in either party, though the Boston Globe survey over the weekend suggested that he wasn't even getting that many independent voters' support.

But he has been out over the past couple of weeks, and he's been very diligently doing town hall meetings. And people, I think, will respond to him.

I think the war, believe it or not, is helping him. Remember that he was a supporter of increased troops in Iraq from the beginning, and he's in a position now where he can say, "I told you so."

But most of all, something about his personality I think works well in Iowa -- excuse me, in New Hampshire, not in Iowa.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just very quickly, that very negative editorial in the Concord Monitor against Romney.

ADAM NAGOURNEY: I've never seen anything like that in my life. The Monitor wrote an editorial on Sunday. It basically -- it was clearly, you could call it just a "Do not vote for Romney under any circumstances" editorial. It was devastating.

And even though I think the Concord Monitor tends to be read or have influence more with Democratic voters and maybe independent voters, who I don't think were going to vote for Romney anyway, it still was pretty damning.

Iowa Democrats split three ways

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, back to the Democrats here. It's still tightly bunched in Iowa. What are these candidates doing? Who are they targeting and how are they getting their vote out?

MARK HALPERIN: Well, look, it is a very small group relative to the whole country and even Iowa. Only about 160,000 maximum will turn out.

You've got to, though, try to reach everybody. So you're seeing all sorts of efforts. Bill Clinton has gone to Waterloo, Iowa, twice in the last week, once with Magic Johnson and then to a Sunday church service with his wife, the candidate, yesterday. It's an incredible focus on one town, a pretty reasonable-sized city by Iowa standards.

But they're trying to turn everybody out. The Clinton campaign focusing on women, particularly older women; the Obama campaign focusing on young people and independent Democrats who maybe haven't caucused in the past.

The Edwards campaign -- and, again, we must caution people to not think this is a two-person race. John Edwards has the most reliable base of support. Both Obama people and Clinton people will tell you that, if it's bad weather, if it turns out to be a relatively low turnout, John Edwards has a real good chance to win this and shake the race up even more.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Adam, what I saw when I was in Iowa about a week ago is that Edwards is trying to lock down and has locked down a lot of those people who've been to caucuses faithfully in the past. Why is that so important?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: Well, Mark is totally right about this. The caucusing system is, a, difficult; and, b, requires a certain level of commitment.

And the big difference between Edwards and Obama and Clinton is that most of his supporters have voted before -- excuse me, they have caucused before. They know what they're doing. They're more likely to turn out.

I think that what keeps Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama up at night is the fact that they are trying to expand the universe. Mark was talking about that 160,000 number. I agree with him; that's a large number. And that counts on Mrs. Clinton being able to get older women out who have never voted before and Senator Obama getting out college students who have never voted before.

That's the big difference between the two. And I agree: It's a mistake not to look at this as a three-way race. Edwards could absolutely win in Iowa.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, Mark, I know some people watching are going to say, "Wait a minute. We haven't talked about the issues. We've only been focusing on the horse race and on logistics and organization"...

ADAM NAGOURNEY: I mentioned the war. Don't forget that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You're right. You did.

But, Mark, how much of it at this point is about organization?

MARK HALPERIN: Well, a lot of it is. I mean, the appeals to get new people involved is certainly the case. There is a big undecided, and those people will be affected by organization, but also by the message.

It's always important to talk about issues and not just the horse race. At the same time, there are not that many key differences between the candidates. They've tried to accentuate them in some cases.

Between the parties, there certainly are differences. But between Obama, Clinton, Edwards, and the major Republican candidates on the other side, if you look at the big issues the voters care about, there are differences, but they aren't fundamental.

And I think voters are a lot more focused on electability, on personality. Who would be the kind of president they're looking for, rather than a checklist of issue positions?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I hope both of you at least get a little bit of a break before you head back on the trail tomorrow and Wednesday. Thank you both, Mark Halperin, Adam Nagourney. Great to see both of you. Thanks.

MARK HALPERIN: Thank you, Judy.