JIM LEHRER: And next tonight, an update on the U.S. presidential campaign with Amy Walter, editor-in-chief of the Hotline, National Journal’s political daily, and Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today.
Amy, Susan, relax. I’m not going to ask you any questions about the TED spread, OK? I promise.
JIM LEHRER: The presidential candidates, Sens. Obama and McCain, how are they playing this going up to this vote tonight?
AMY WALTER, editor-in-chief, The Hotline: Well, they look a lot different — or at least one of them looks a lot different, certainly John McCain, looks a lot different than he did, say, a day ago.
Both candidates now taking a much more — basically, a softer tone, talking a lot about bipartisanship, the importance of getting this vote passed.
What we saw from John McCain in the immediate aftermath of the collapse on Capitol Hill was to go along with what a lot of the Republican leaders were talking about, which was sort of finger-pointing, blaming this on partisans, blaming this on Democrats.
He’s sort of taken that back a step. And now you see that his language was much less confrontational today.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree, Susan?
SUSAN PAGE, USA Today: I think they see themselves in the same boat for once. They’re both backing this plan, and they both have problems with their base supporters in backing it.
We had a poll last night with Gallup, a USA Today-Gallup poll, in which only 20 percent of Americans said they wanted this plan passed; 70 percent wanted it either renegotiated or defeated.
That is not — that is a hard thing for each of them going into the final five weeks of the election to do something that is at odds with the sentiment of so many voters.
The bill's toll on McCain
JIM LEHRER: Is there any evidence yet that what these two candidates want or don't want on this financial package is having any impact on their fellow members of the Congress of the United States?
SUSAN PAGE: I think, if either of them came out against it, it would give a lot of cover to members of their party who wanted to break with the leadership and vote against it. So I think their support is important in keeping it from falling apart.
I don't think it's sufficient to put it together. That clearly is a task that's taking the powers of the president, the congressional leaders, all of them together.
JIM LEHRER: And nobody is going to be able to claim credit, in other words, when this -- let's assume it passes the Senate tonight, as everybody expects, and goes and passes the House on Friday, either Obama nor McCain can say, "I did it?"
AMY WALTER: Right. And I think the bigger problem for John McCain is the fact that he was, at least for this week, so closely aligned with the bill that collapsed. And it's certainly taken a toll on him.
And if you look not just at the numbers that have been coming out today in the national polling, in the state polling, Obama has been moving ahead, but in our own polling, in the Diageo-Hotline poll, I've noticed that it's now for the first time that John McCain's actually dipped under 50 percent, in terms of his approval rating. And Barack Obama is at 58 percent.
So what voters are seeing, whether this is specifically related to his championing of the process, or whether this is just the back-and-forth and the very aggressive campaign that McCain has been running, or whether it's just the fact that when voters are upset about the economy, they think about President Bush, every time President Bush and the economy is on the front page, that hurts John McCain, it's probably the combination of all those things.
But John McCain is in a much different position today than he was even just a week ago.
JIM LEHRER: Is it correct to say, Susan, that it's about this and only this right now, in terms of...
SUSAN PAGE: I think that's right, yes. I think that's one of the -- I think that is the major effect of this whole Wall Street meltdown. It's washed away all the other issues we were talking about two weeks ago.
You know, the economy traditionally trumps other things, but an economy that looks like it's on the verge of collapse is definitely the only thing people want to talk about. We had more U.S. troops dispatched to Iraq yesterday. Who heard about it?
AMY WALTER: One story we had today on the Hotline today about it, one story. So nobody talked about this.
JIM LEHRER: About the Iraq troops?
AMY WALTER: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: Yes, today, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan went to President Bush and said, "Please give us more troops."
AMY WALTER: That's right.
JIM LEHRER: It barely made the wires.
AMY WALTER: Right. Well, there was just one story off the wire, that's right.
Obama's lead in polls
JIM LEHRER: Yes. You talked about the polls. Give us -- flesh that out a little bit. They are moving, are they not, the national polls?
AMY WALTER: They are. We're seeing Obama opening up a lead in almost every national poll that's out there. Now, in some cases, it's a 4- or 5-point -- ours has been 5 points for the last -- basically the last five days, over the course of this week opening up a pretty consistent lead.
And we're also seeing it in some of these state polls. A flurry came out today. Some have big, big, big leads for Obama...
JIM LEHRER: Like what?
AMY WALTER: ... in places like Florida, for example. We've seen him up anywhere from 4 points to closer to 9 points. There was a 15-point poll in Pennsylvania that -- it's not likely that he's up 15 points, but there are two other polls that show him up 7 and 8 points.
In fact, every poll that I've seen that's come out -- this is from CNN and the Quinnipiac -- that have come out today from all battleground states -- Florida, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, and Virginia -- all have Barack Obama ahead.
JIM LEHRER: How do you read those, Susan?
Women as swing voters
SUSAN PAGE: I think one thing to look at is what's happening with women voters. Women are more swing voters than men voters are. We see movement among...
JIM LEHRER: Up until now, that's the way it's been, all during this whole...
SUSAN PAGE: Historically, it's always true.
JIM LEHRER: OK.
SUSAN PAGE: Women move more between the two parties than men do. And we've seen Barack Obama on this economic message make inroads even among married women. Married women, a Republican group, they feel more financially secure usually than single women, who are a Democratic group.
We see them even up among married, white women now in the Time poll that came out today. That's important. That's a group that Republicans need to win if they're going to win a national election.
AMY WALTER: Although, you know what's really interesting that I've been noticing in looking at our poll, too, it's the fact that where Obama has been consistently underperforming where other Democrats have been in the past -- John Kerry or an Al Gore -- is among unmarried, white women.
And he's not doing as well as he -- as other Democrats have done, so even as the economy has been front and center in the news.
Where he's doing well then, too -- I think Susan is absolutely right. He's opening up a lead among women overall. And he's leading in groups where Democrats haven't traditionally done as well, especially among independent voters and voters that are college-educated independent voters.
Palin's debate performance
JIM LEHRER: Now, speaking of the polls -- and, of course, tomorrow night is the vice presidential debate -- there's been some changes there, too, has there not, in Sarah Palin versus Joe Biden?
SUSAN PAGE: I would predict with confidence that Sarah Palin will exceed expectations tomorrow night, because expectations have been so lowered with these interviews in which she's had a kind of faltering performance.
But we have seen some of the excitement that she brought to the Republican ticket ease off a little bit. And some of the real questions raised about, is she qualified to take over as president if that should become necessary?
I think she's got a difficult affirmative task tomorrow night and that is to persuade people that they could trust her with the Oval Office if that became necessary.
Her task is not only to tear down Barack Obama, although that's part of it. She has a job to do in terms of bolstering her own reputation. And I think that's true not only for this election, but also for her future leadership in the Republican Party.
You know, if she does well tomorrow night, Sarah Palin will be a leader of the Republican Party after November, whether the McCain-Palin ticket wins or not, but it hinges on her making this case to Americans tomorrow night.
JIM LEHRER: And does the problem with the financial crisis and the economy affect that as much -- it used to be the issue, until a few days ago, was foreign policy experience. Is it now also the economy?
AMY WALTER: Well, absolutely, and being able to answer those questions effectively. And I think the good news for Sarah Palin right now, though, is for, as bad a week as she's had, or week-and-a-half, while her numbers have dropped, it's not like they've kind of gone off a cliff.
So I think that voters are still holding back judgment here and that that's why this debate becomes so important for her, is that, you know, is it going to open the floodgates for her to drop more? Or is it she's just going to basically hold steady where she is?
It may not have a tremendous impact on the race good or bad, but won't at least be a drag in that way.
SUSAN PAGE: Also, will we see the faltering, uncertain Sarah Palin that we've seen in interviews in the last week or will we see that kind of lively, charismatic, down-to-earth hockey mom that played so well at the Republican convention? Which one is going to show up tomorrow?
AMY WALTER: Well, and it's pretty clear she wants that one to show up, because she's been talking about "Joe Six-Pack." So expect more Joe Six-Pack, less Putin.
JIM LEHRER: Is it pure guesswork as to, however well she does tomorrow night, what effect it would have on the race itself, McCain versus Obama, or is it part of the big question?
AMY WALTER: I do think that there's a lot of guesswork in that. Certainly, if it's disastrous, that's very different than if it's -- it goes very, very well.
But I think fundamentally it's the next two presidential debates that people are going to watch out for. And what they're going to -- I think it's how these two candidates, how these two men wear over the course of three debates that that's what those undecided voters are going to base their decision on.
SUSAN PAGE: You know, I've been covering elections since 1980. There's never been a case where a vice presidential debate made any difference in the November outcome.
JIM LEHRER: So you think it's the same?
SUSAN PAGE: So I think it's unlikely. It could mean more for Sarah Palin's future than for John McCain's future.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Amy, thank you both very much, Susan and Amy.