TOPICS > Politics

Nevada Voters Weigh Democratic Debate

November 16, 2007 at 6:25 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now, the fifth and last day of our Big Picture trip to Nevada, one of the early political caucus states. It culminated with the Democratic presidential candidate debate last night in Las Vegas.

Once again to Judy Woodruff.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jim, much has been made of the fact that Nevada is one of the early presidential caucus states and that this debate would be the first to focus on western issues, but last night’s event, here on the campus of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, only barely touched on those. Instead, it picked up where the last debate in Philadelphia left off.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: Senator Clinton, I think, is a capable politician, and I think that she has run a terrific campaign. But what the American people are looking for right now is straight answers to tough questions. And that is not what we’ve seen out of Senator Clinton on a host of issues.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), New York: I hear what Senator Obama is saying, and he talks a lot about stepping up and taking responsibility and taking strong positions. But when it came time to step up and decide whether or not he would support universal health care coverage, he chose not to do that. His plan would leave 15 million Americans out. That’s about the population of Nevada, Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN Anchor: I want Senator Edwards to weigh in, because you’ve spoken about the politics of parsing in your criticism of Senator Clinton. I want you to explain what that means.

FORMER SEN. JOHN EDWARDS (D), Presidential Candidate: She says she will bring change to Washington, while she continues to defend a system that does not work, that is broken, that is rigged and is corrupt, corrupted against the interest of most Americans and corrupted…

WOLF BLITZER: All right.

JOHN EDWARDS: … and corrupted for a very small, very powerful, very well-financed group.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: I don’t mind taking hits on my record on issues, but when somebody starts throwing mud, at least we can hope that it’s both accurate and not right out of the Republican playbook.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Nearly 10 minutes passed before any of the other candidates were let in.

WOLF BLITZER: Senator Biden, I want you to weigh in. Senator Biden…

SEN. JOE BIDEN (D), Delaware: Oh, no, no, no.

WOLF BLITZER: … I want you to weigh in.

SEN. JOE BIDEN: Don’t do it, no!

Don’t make me speak!

WOLF BLITZER: I want you to. Go ahead.

What do you think? Senator Biden, here’s a question. What do you think about this exchange among Democrats? Is that good for the Democrats, or is it bad?

SEN. JOE BIDEN: Hey, look, let’s get to it, folks. The American people don’t give a darn about any of this stuff that’s going on up here. Look, they’re sitting — no, seriously, think about it.

They’re sitting down at their tables at night, they put their kids to bed, and they’re worrying about whether or not they’re going to be able to pay for their mortgage, because, even if they didn’t have one of those subprime mortgages, things are looking bad for them. They’re worrying about whether they’re going to keep their job, and they’re worrying about whether their son in the National Guard is going to get killed in Iraq.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The questioners eventually got to the issues. Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd was asked whether teachers who excel should be paid more.

SEN. CHRIS DODD (D), Connecticut: … if you define excelling by teachers who will go into poor rural or poor urban areas and make a difference, mentor children after school, put in extra time to make a difference, then I think that sort of merit pay has value. If you’re judging excelling by determining whether or not that teacher has students who do better because they’re in better neighborhoods or better schools, I’m totally opposed to that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And there was the issue of what to do about Pakistan. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson said President Musharraf should be held accountable.

GOV. BILL RICHARDSON (D), New Mexico: If we’re on the side of democracy and human rights and we’re on the side of Musharraf having elections, then U.S. interests are preserved, and the Pakistani people have a democracy.

WOLF BLITZER: Let me just be precise, because I want to make sure we all — I heard you correctly. What you’re saying, Governor, is that human rights, at times, are more important than American national security?

GOV. BILL RICHARDSON: Yes, because I believe we need to find ways to say to the world that, you know, it’s not just about what Halliburton wants in Iraq. It’s also about…

… our values of freedom, equality. Our strength is not just military and economic.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich tried to position himself apart from all others on the stage.

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH (D), Ohio: People who voted for the war, voted to fund the war, now they have a different position. People who voted for the Patriot Act, now they have a different position. People voted for China trade. Now they have a different position. People who voted for Yucca Mountain. Now they have a different position. Just imagine what it will be like to have a president of the United States who’s right the first time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Late in the debate, CNN’s Campbell Brown turned the spotlight back to Clinton.

CAMPBELL BROWN, CNN Anchor: Some have suggested that you, that your campaign, that your husband are exploiting gender as a political issue during this campaign. What’s really going on here?

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: Well, I’m not exploiting anything at all. I’m not playing, as some people say, the gender card here in Las Vegas. I’m just trying to play the winning card. And I understand very well that people are not attacking me because I’m a woman; they’re attacking me because I’m ahead.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All of the candidates did agree on one thing, that the Iraq war should be brought to an end, but differed on how long that should take.

Issues of education

JUDY WOODRUFF: Joining us now are six undecided Nevada voters who watched the debate with me here in the studios of Vegas PBS, which has been very helpful to us all this week.

Our voters are: Nick Kallos, who owns a casino training company; Nur Kausar, she's a senior at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, she is the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper; Darlene Mea, the head of a multimedia production company; Angel Santiago, a porter at the Mandalay Bay Casino who is a member of the culinary union; Iraq war veteran Henry Lujan, who is a code enforcement officer for the city of Las Vegas; and Verlinda Johnson, a billings analyst for an Internet service provider and a PTA officer.

Thank you, all six of you, for being here with us and for sitting with us to listen to this debate.

Let me just begin by asking all of you and, Nick Kallos, I'll start with you. Did you hear from these candidates tonight information that would help you make up your mind about for whom to vote? Now, I should say you're a registered Republican. What did you think?

NICK KALLOS, Casino Trading Company Owner: Correct. Yes, I did. There was many things that happened tonight. I was impressed with a lot of the people had a lot of great ideas that I didn't know how they felt.

The one thing on education they talked about that I've always felt strongly about, because I'm kind of in the teaching business myself, is that that the teachers do not get the money they deserve, and it's true. I mean, these are the people that are training our future for us, and they're working for less money than a lot of people in other fields. It's just not fair. And I was interested to hear about that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, Verlinda Johnson, you are a registered Democrat. You're also involved with the PTA, the Parent Teachers Association. Did what the candidates have to say about education strike you?

VERLINDA JOHNSON, Billings Analyst: I think the concept of giving merit pay is great, but you're going to open a whole can of worms if you don't have the stipulations out. What's merit pay?

Considering someone who lives in Henderson versus somebody who lives in north Las Vegas, it just depends. I've seen schools who are new, and they come about. They have teachers for two years and then, as soon as they get the credibility that they need, they go teach at better schools. And to me, I think that's sad.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Anybody else on pay for teachers and the subject of education?

DARLENE MEA, Head, Multimedia Production Company: I think teachers should be overall paid much more than they are. Our educational system seems to be at the bottom of what we take care of in this country, and that's really our generations to come on a continuous basis.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So how would you pay for it?

DARLENE MEA: Well, the same way we pay for war. I mean, we pay for war, billions of dollars. And so I think all that we spend over there should come back into the country to take care of our health care, take care of our education and our seniors. And that's how I pay for it. We have plenty of money to fight and do what we're doing.

Iraq war stance

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Darlene just raised this issue of the war. If we can spend that money on war, why can't we spend it on our teachers and on health care?

Nur Kausar, I want to bring you in. You also identified yourself as a registered Democrat. What about the war? What did you hear the candidates saying tonight that sticks with you? Was there one candidate who has a view of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflict that you identify with?

NUR KAUSAR, Student: After listening to all the candidates, my stance on the war has been that we shouldn't have gone in, in the first place. And, honestly, even though Kucinich is kind of laughed at a lot, but I really did like what he was saying that we should have, you know, seen the effects that the Iraq war would have on other Muslim countries, such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, because that is a major issue.

It doesn't seem that any other presidents seemed to want to address the social issue in that region. And if you go into a country and create a war or create turmoil, it's going to affect the other people that identify with those people in that country.

So the Muslim countries in that region, the reason probably why the extremism has gone up after the war is because they're upset and the turmoil is increasing, because we haven't really addressed the social issues there. We haven't addressed the education of the children there; we haven't addressed things like that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We did hear Barack Obama say tonight that he would like to see schools set up that would teach the young people in the Middle East a path other than anti-Americanism. What about what he said or what anyone else said, Angel?

ANGEL SANTIAGO, Porter, Mandalay Bay Casino: Well, with Barack Obama, you know, I agreed with what he was saying about sit down and diplomatic solution, talking with both our friends and our enemies, setting up the schools, education. Those are all things that -- those are positive things instead of going to war.

I'm sorry, I'm for the military, also. I was in the military, in the Air Force for 10 years. And I know, you know, it's going to be a hard thing getting our troops back over here. It's not going to be something that's going to be done overnight, you know, because we have to pull them out in a safe way.

But diplomatic solution, that's the immediate thing that we have to get in there, is more diplomatic...

HENRY LUJAN, Iraq War Veteran: Well, I have firsthand knowledge in Iraq. You guys heard about Abu Ghraib prison, where all those notorious pictures were being taken? I was there. We opened it.

My unit, from this Las Vegas little National Guard unit, opened Abu Ghraib, refurbished it, did a battle hand-over, and that unit took those pictures.

The guy that was in charge of that, Charles Graner, the guy with the fingers up and the gloves and all that, I was a witness at his trial in Fort Hood, Texas. So I saw him get his 10 years for what he did. He doesn't speak for all of us.

I'm telling you guys right now, if we pull out now, as -- we used to escort these kids to school. We helped them. They want us there. But the thing that you guys don't hear is that you guys listen and what you read in the paper and what you see on TV, it's what sells.

NICK KALLOS: That's right.

HENRY LUJAN: I was there. I know what it's like. Every day, you would be -- we're called "junbies." That's in Arabic, soldiers. Every day, when I would get up and go to work, go to Baghdad, run these missions, open up jails, I would hear nothing but praise for us being there.

If we pulled out now, like how they're trying to put a timeline -- "I will pull them out in 16 months" -- all you're going to do is leave that country vulnerable. And what's going to happen is Syria and Iran are aching to get in there.

The way Iraq went into Kuwait in '91, these other countries are going to do that. That country's so vulnerable, we cannot leave, because I promise you something right now: If we leave and we pulled out like they said, we will be right back in there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does everybody here agree with what Henry's saying?

NUR KAUSAR: No, I agree with you. I don't think we can pull out the way that they're...

HENRY LUJAN: We can't give them a timeline because...

NICK KALLOS: We did start something here. And people -- and I'm not saying nobody forgets -- but people forget about -- they came into our country, and look what they did on 9/11. Everybody's blaming who's in there now, the administration, but think about this: These guys blew up our buildings. They killed a bunch of people. Should we turn our back and just walk away?

And if you lost a brother or a son or you lost somebody, should we just say, "Well, let's count our losses, and get out of here, and leave those people high and dry"? That's something I don't agree with.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So are any of these candidates saying what you believe and what you, Henry Lujan, believe about what we should do in Iraq?


NICK KALLOS: They're saying what they should, what they need to say to get elected. Am I right?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Verlinda's had her hand up. I'm going to let her speak here.

VERLINDA JOHNSON: I hear what you're saying, but we need to get out of there. I'm not saying we need to get out of there in a year. I'm not saying we need to get out of there in two years, but we need a plan of execution, because we went into a war without a plan of execution. There should have been a way, when they designed the war, for us to get out.

Bridging partisan lines

JUDY WOODRUFF: Did any of these candidates come across to you, all of you, as best able to lead a divided country, a country that is divided, as we see here at this table tonight, on Iraq? Nur?

NUR KAUSAR: I feel like a few of them did discuss trying to bring together both the Democratic and the Republican parties. I believe it was Biden who said that, you know, he would have Republicans in his cabinet, which I think would be a good idea.

And, also, as far as -- they were discussing the Supreme Court justices and trying to pick someone who might or might not follow their views. But it seemed like they were kind of dodging the actual question, like they weren't saying in this country how they would unite. They were talking more along terms of, well, we need to have diplomatic relations, foreign relations with people around us. It was more of an international attempt than in the country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Excuse me, is that something that matters to you all, that a president is able to bring the country together? I mean, polls indicate Americans are divided on Iraq, on questions like health care.

ANGEL SANTIAGO: From listening to all the candidates who want to -- you know, on that issue, I think Obama came across, you know, the most strong on with the diplomatic. The same way he's talking about having diplomatic relations with the other countries, our friends and our enemies, we need to do the same thing here.

Focusing on Clinton

JUDY WOODRUFF: I do want to ask you, at one point early on in the discussion, there was a question about the other candidates criticizing Hillary Clinton and whether it was the boys ganging up on Senator Clinton. What did you think about that discussion?

NICK KALLOS: Leave that stuff to the side. We don't need any of that. We want to hear about -- anybody who cares about anything, he wants to hear like I do about the war, and she wants to hear about education. We want to hear about things that concern us.

You tell me what I did last week or what I said wrong or how I worded something is a waste of time to the public. Hillary, I mean, she said it best. She's leading in the polls. That's why everybody's throwing stuff at her and shooting bullets and all this stuff, because she is the one that's running in first place right now.

HENRY LUJAN: She's very bright. She's a very bright lady. And the thing about Americans is that we're very -- we jump on the bandwagon with popularity when it comes to music or shows and stuff, so I honestly think she's going to end up getting it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Getting what?

HENRY LUJAN: Getting the presidency. I think she'll -- if a Democrat wins, I think Hillary will win, and I think she should take Obama as her vice, though.



JUDY WOODRUFF: As her vice president?

HENRY LUJAN: Because we're going to have the female, we might as well have a black vice.

NICK KALLOS: I think Richardson.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What did you say?

NICK KALLOS: Richardson's going to be the vice president, and Hillary's going to be the president. That's just...

JUDY WOODRUFF: And these are two Republicans, registered Republicans.

NICK KALLOS: I'm doing my best to tell you...

HENRY LUJAN: I'm going for the -- I'm obviously Republican, but out of those Democrats, who I saw best.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, let's hear what a Democrat...

VERLINDA JOHNSON: ... I do believe that Hillary has the experience, because she's been in the White House for four years. I honestly do believe she is probably, at this point, the best candidate when it comes to speaking. But I'm not one of the people -- I don't care what you tell me. I care what you do.

HENRY LUJAN: Actions speak louder than words.

DARLENE MEA: And I think Hillary's got a long line of too much untruth, basically.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you mean?

DARLENE MEA: She just has many, many years of not being honest. I don't believe anything she says, and I would love to, but I don't.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Angel Santiago, did you hear tonight...

ANGEL SANTIAGO: Basically, I'm still supporting -- the three candidates that I'm looking at right here is Clinton, Obama, Richardson. All right, the rest, I just couldn't feel them, you know, what they were saying. I just, you know, couldn't connect with it.


NUR KAUSAR: I'm still undecided.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Still not narrowed it down even?

NUR KAUSAR: No. It's too early, so we'll have to see.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I think we got a view from all of you, and I want to thank you very much for sitting here and watching this debate with us. We appreciate it. Henry Lujan, Darlene Mea, Nick Kallos, Nur Kausar, Angel Santiago and Verlinda Johnson, we thank you all.