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Oprah Backs Obama, Huckabee’s Star Rises on the Campaign ’08 Trail

December 10, 2007 at 6:15 PM EDT
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Over the weekend, Oprah Winfrey threw her support behind Democratic candidate Barack Obama, while the GOP's Mike Huckabee has been enjoying a steady rise in the polls. Campaign reporters look at the latest developments in the presidential primary campaigns.

JIM LEHRER: Next, what’s behind those Obama and Huckabee surges? NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman begins with this campaign update.

OPRAH WINFREY, Talk Show Host: I’m here to tell you, Iowa, he is the one. He is the one. Barack Obama!

KWAME HOLMAN: For Barack Obama, the timing of his much-ballyhooed campaign swing with Oprah Winfrey could not have worked out better. The latest polls show Obama now in a statistical dead heat with Hillary Clinton in the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. And the Oprah-Obama blitz attracted large crowds in all three states this weekend.

Obama hopes Winfrey’s endorsement will attract more women to his candidacy.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: Oprah Winfrey, the more we’ve known her, the more spectacular you realize her character and her soul is. This is a wonderful person. We love her. I’m grateful for her being here.

KWAME HOLMAN: In contrast, Hillary Clinton’s weekend was more subdued, as she campaigned in Iowa with daughter Chelsea and with her 88-year-old mother. Clinton ignored all questions about Winfrey’s potential impact on the primary race.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), New York: I’m having a good time. I just am not sure I’m going to eat all of this in front of all of you, and that’s the only thing I’m concerned about right now.

KWAME HOLMAN: Clinton did send her own star-powered supporter, Bill Clinton, to campaign in South Carolina on Saturday, ahead of Winfrey’s visit.

KWAME HOLMAN: But it was another former Arkansas governor who attracted attention this weekend. One-time long-shot candidate Mike Huckabee now is the surprise frontrunner among the Republican candidates.

But inevitably, the leader of the pack becomes the most scrutinized, and Huckabee now is being stalked by his record: He advocated for the release of a convicted rapist who, after release, raped and murdered. And then there’s the comment he made 15 years ago, that AIDS patients should be isolated.

Campaigning in South Carolina on Saturday, Huckabee argued his views on that reflected what was known about AIDS at the time.

FORMER GOV. MIKE HUCKABEE (R), Arkansas: If I were making those same comments today, I might make them a little differently. But, obviously, I have to stand by what I said. Medical protocol typically says that, if you have a disease for which there is no cure and you are uncertain about the transmission of it, that the first thing you do is you quarantine or isolate carriers.

KWAME HOLMAN: On Sunday, six of the other Republican candidates joined Huckabee for a Univision-sponsored debate focused mainly on immigration issues. And for the most part, they passed on the opportunity to try to knock him off his pack-leading pedestal.

"It's all about the energy"

Susan Page
USA Today
But on the Republican side, this is really unprecedented. Republicans in modern times have generally [...] been kind of an orderly party. We've never had someone come from as far back as Huckabee began and end up with the Republican nomination.

JIM LEHRER: Margaret Warner takes it from there.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, to explore what's behind the latest twists on the campaign trail, we're joined by Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today, and Time magazine correspondent Jay Newton-Small. She's been covering the race on the ground in Iowa and joins us from there now.

And welcome to you both.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee, of course, started from very different places in their respective campaigns. But, Susan, they are both now surging even or even ahead of the front-runners in their respective parties. What's going on here? What explains this?

SUSAN PAGE, USA Today: Well, I think we see some unhappiness among the base with the front-runners that they've got, and this is a phenomenon we've seen before in the Democratic Party. As you say, Obama didn't start from so far back. He's always been a very significant rival for Hillary Clinton.

But on the Republican side, this is really unprecedented. Republicans in modern times have generally given the nomination to the next person. They've been kind of an orderly party. We've never had someone come from as far back as Huckabee began and end up with the Republican nomination.

Now, of course, he doesn't have it yet. But he's certainly surged in the past couple of weeks in a way that we haven't seen before in the modern Republican Party.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Jay, you're out there watching in this Iowa where he's particularly doing well. What do you think explains it? What do you see on the ground there?

JAY NEWTON-SMALL, Time Magazine: Well, it's really interesting, because the buzz all summer has been about Barack Obama, who's got all this money and all this energy and all these audiences, but why isn't he doing better in the polls? And then, conversely, Huckabee, who's doing so charming, so interesting, why isn't he doing better in the polls, although he has no money?

So one came from a point with too much money or a lot of money and the other one with no money, but they're ending up in the same place, and that is the big surge.

And in Iowa, it's really all about the energy, but for very different reasons. Huckabee seems to be really appealing to the Evangelical voters, and Barack Obama is making a huge play into Hillary Clinton's territory, which is women.

Campaigns about hope and change

Jay Newton-Small
Time Magazine
A lot of people that I've seen and spoken to on the ground for both Barack Obama and for Huckabee have been really charmed by both of them. They talk a lot about how affable they both are, how approachable they both are, how positive and optimistic.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Susan, when you look at -- they both had some perceived negatives that were similar, one of which was that neither Huckabee nor Obama was believed to have the same kind of foreign policy experience, the national security experience as some of the front-runners. Has that become less important now?

SUSAN PAGE: You know, I think it's one of the repercussions of the fact that the surge in Iraq has been working, that the level of violence there has gotten somewhat lower. That's made Iraq less of an issue on the campaign trail.

It's still an important issue, but we've seen issues with the economy, the mortgage crisis, health care become more important. And that's opened the door to a candidate like Mike Huckabee, who's been governor of Arkansas but has no foreign policy experience. We see him getting tripped up these days because he hasn't been required to have a fully formed foreign policy platform as governor of Arkansas.

And for Barack Obama, too, the Hillary Clinton people like to say that, three years ago, Barack Obama was a state senator from Illinois. Barack Obama has been trying to turn that around, to say he has other lifetime experiences that are important. That's easier to do when you're focused on domestic issues than when you're focused on foreign ones, like the war in Iraq or the threat of terrorism.

MARGARET WARNER: And then, Jay, the other thing they seem -- one thing they seem to have in common, which is a plus, is that at least, if you look at the polls, each one of them is seen as more likable than the front-runners in their respective parties. When you talk to voters, does that come through?

JAY NEWTON-SMALL: Certainly, a lot of people that I've seen and spoken to on the ground for both Barack Obama and for Huckabee have been really charmed by both of them. They talk a lot about how affable they both are, how approachable they both are, how positive and optimistic.

Both of them are running campaigns that are all about hope and change. So, I mean, that is -- certainly in Iowa, which has a real distaste for negativity, they've been playing very well.

Evangelicals fuel Huckabee's rise

Susan Page
USA Today
Most candidates have an infrastructure of pollsters, longtime advisers, foreign policy committees, and that kind of thing. [Huckabee] doesn't have that safety net to fall back on.

MARGARET WARNER: But now, in Iowa, it appears that a lot of Huckabee's surge is due to the Evangelical Christian vote, is it not? And if so, how sustainable is that for him, even if he were to do very well in Iowa, in the coming primaries?

JAY NEWTON-SMALL: Well, certainly, in New Hampshire, that's more of a challenge for Huckabee, because there aren't that many Evangelicals in New Hampshire. But there are a lot, actually, in South Carolina. And in the South, he'll play a lot better.

So if he can get past, if he does really well in Iowa, can get past New Hampshire and stay strong, then he has a good chance in South Carolina, as well.

MARGARET WARNER: Another thing, Susan, that's been raised about Mike Huckabee is just can such a latecomer withstand the scrutiny that will come now and is coming now, this past record as governor and his past comments? What's the early evidence on that?

SUSAN PAGE: Well, I think he's fumbled on some things, being asked about a questionnaire he'd filled out in 2002 when he was running as a candidate, being questioned about statements he made in 1992.

You know, these other candidates who have been running and been significant candidates for a while have faced these questions over and over again. They've gotten their answers down. Mike Huckabee is coming to this pretty late, and he comes to it without the kind of campaign infrastructure that you'd like to have when you're facing this kind of scrutiny.

I was traveling with him in New Hampshire about 10 days ago. And I said, "Well, who do you turn to for advice?" And he said, "Well, if I want support and praise, I turn to my daughter. And if I want criticism, I turn to my wife."

You know, most candidates have an infrastructure of pollsters, longtime advisers, foreign policy committees, and that kind of thing. He doesn't have that safety net to fall back on. It makes the task of sustaining your rise when the scrutiny comes a little bit harder.

MARGARET WARNER: So in other words, last week, when he didn't appear to even know about the new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, it's probably because no one told him?

SUSAN PAGE: Not a surprise to me traveling with him. You know, it's him and one aide in a rented SUV driving around these states. And it's not that he doesn't have some staffers; he has some.

But it was only in October that his campaign had enough money to rent an office in New Hampshire. Before that, they were operating out of the trunk of the car of the woman who's charged with organizing New Hampshire.

So he's come a long way. But he has a long way to go, and it gets tougher, it gets tougher as you get higher up that line of candidates.

Oprah endorses Obama

Jay Newton-Small
Time Magazine
[Oprah] brought people in, and it gave Obama a chance to make his pitch.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Jay, of course, the big media event of this weekend was the Obama-Oprah three-state tour. And you were at the event in Iowa. Tell us about that.

I mean, did that feel like just a happening to you? Or was it put together in a way that gives the Obama people some reason to believe that this endorsement is going to mean more than most celebrity endorsements?

JAY NEWTON-SMALL: Well, the Obama people certainly milked it for everything that it was worth.

About half of the tickets that were handed out directly by the office -- there were 12,000 tickets handed out for the Des Moines event alone from the Des Moines offices -- about 6,000 of those tickets people had to qualify for them, and those were the ones where you get to be in front. So they either had to do a four-hour volunteer shift with the campaign, doing data entry or answering phones, making phone calls, or you had to do a caucus training, if you were a first-time caucusgoer.

So a lot of these -- they brought in a lot of brand-new volunteers, brought out brand-new names and numbers and e-mails, so they can add those to their list and help get out the vote come caucus day, which is a really big boon for them.

And not only that, but there was another 11,000 people online that signed up and had to give their names and addresses, plus another 10,000 in Cedar Rapids. So that's nearly 30,000 names and numbers they just added to their rolls.

MARGARET WARNER: And did you talk to people leaving the event? Did you find people who had been ambivalent who were now for Obama?

JAY NEWTON-SMALL: I spoke to one woman. The first woman who showed up, for example, she had been there for seven hours, waiting to get into the Des Moines event. And she was not a big Obama fan; she was a huge Oprah fan.

But she was saying, "OK, well, listen, I'm really interested in politics this time around. I've never caucused before. But I'm torn between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama." And when she left, she was saying, "Well, that guy is actually really interesting. He's got a lot of energy. I really like him."

So she brought people in, and it gave Obama a chance to make his pitch. And, you know, hopefully he convinced, for his campaign, he convinced a lot of those people to come on board with him.

MARGARET WARNER: And a brief final thought from you on the pitch that he was making clearly here at the two base of voters that Hillary Clinton is counting on, too, women and African-Americans.

SUSAN PAGE: Exactly, so I don't think a celebrity endorsement gets you a vote, but it opens the door for you to hear the appeal of the candidate. And this goes right to the core of Hillary Clinton's support: women, especially older women, who are likely to be Oprah watchers and maybe giving Barack Obama a look.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Susan Page and Jay Newton-Small, thank you both.