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Candidates Sharpen Attacks as Campaigns Pick Up Speed

September 12, 2008 at 6:20 PM EDT
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As the presidential hopefuls race toward Election Day, the campaigns are taking an increasingly sharper tone both on the campaign trail and in television ads. Political reporters discuss the impact of the latest developments.
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MARGARET WARNER: Late this afternoon, ABC News released parts of the Palin interview that are airing tonight.

Here’s an excerpt about the so-called bridge to nowhere.

CHARLES GIBSON: You have said continually since he chose you as his vice presidential nominee that: “I said to Congress thanks, but no thanks. If we are going to build that bridge, we will build it ourselves.”

SARAH PALIN: Right.

CHARLES GIBSON: But it’s now pretty clearly documented. You supported that bridge before you opposed it. You were wearing a T-shirt in the 2006 campaign, showed your support for the — for the bridge to nowhere.

SARAH PALIN: I was wearing a T-shirt with the zip code of the community that was asking for that bridge. And not all the people in that community even were asking for a $400 million or $300 million bridge.

CHARLES GIBSON: But you turned against it after Congress had basically pulled the plug on it, after it became apparent that the state was going to have to pay for it, not the Congress, and after it became a national embarrassment to the state of Alaska.

So, do you want to revise and extend your remarks on it?

PALIN: It has always been an embarrassment that abuse of the earmark process has been accepted in Congress. And that’s what John McCain has fought. And that’s what I joined him in fighting. It’s been an embarrassment, not just Alaska’s projects. But McCain gives example after example after example.

MARGARET WARNER: For more on this week’s political developments, we’re joined by Amy Walter, editor in chief of The Hotline, National Journal’s political daily, and Adam Nagourney, chief political reporter for the New York Times. He’s been out on the campaign trail with Barack Obama all week, and joins us now from a studio in Washington, D.C.

Welcome, both of you. Welcome back.

Adam, how different is the Barack Obama we saw on the stump today from the Barack Obama you were covering earlier in the week?

ADAM NAGOURNEY, The New York Times: There has been a steady evolution over the past couple of days that I think just broke through today.

Senator Obama has been sort of under criticism by Democrats for not being aggressive enough in coming back at Senator McCain, especially since the Republican Convention. We saw hints of it a couple days ago, but, today in New Hampshire, with his advertisements, with his speech there, with his surrogates, he is really sort of engaging him in a very strong, full-out way. They are clearly trying to turn the sort of course on the storyline of this campaign.

Obama camp reacts to ads

MARGARET WARNER: Now, tell us, based on your reporting from the Obama camp this week, what was it like inside the campaign in the past week? I mean, were they getting a lot of criticism from their supporters? How did they respond internally?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: They were getting -- they were getting some criticism and expressions of nervousness from supporters. One thing to remember about the Obama campaign is that they are very, very, very competent, and I think unflappable. We have seen this over the past two years.

So, what I can't tell you for sure is whether they have changed course in any kind of dramatic way, because what they will tell you is, they were always planning, in this period, to sort of step things up. I suspect they stepped things up more than they originally intended to, in part because they were a little bit worried about the success that Senator McCain has had, at least so far, since his convention, but also because you want to do something to reassure Democrats, donors, contributors, and also organizers that you are in control, and that you are sort of controlling the debate.

And I think that is what we saw happen today, in a very orchestrated kind of way, I must say.

MARGARET WARNER: Amy, tell us about the McCain campaign, these ads that we're all focused on. How big a buy are they, really? Where are they being shown?

AMY WALTER, Editor in Chief, The Hotline: Well, we don't know a whole lot of details about exactly where they are being shown, but we know a lot are in these so-called battleground states.

But I think what we know is that a lot of the focus on these ads is coming more from the so-called free media, the news media, than it is from actually being shown on television sets and commercial airtime. And, so, a lot of the back and forth that we're hearing about these ads isn't necessarily because people are watching these ads. It is that we are talking about them a lot.

And just, as Adam was talking about, in terms of reassuring supporters, I mean, this is the time in the campaign where both sides, what they are trying to do right now -- it's funny. They are not really talking to undecided voters as much as they're talking to their base.

From the McCain camp, it's, look, we got these -- this guy on his heels. We are on the offensive. We're energized. We're ready to go.

And for the Obama campaign, as Adam pointed out, saying to their supporters -- remember, they talk a lot about this enthusiasm gap -- saying to them: Don't worry. Keep enthused. We're going to win.

Polls need a week to settle

MARGARET WARNER: So, what do the polls tell us about the impact of the McCain ads and the Palin phenomenon?

AMY WALTER: Well, this is a fascinating time to be looking at these, because, normally, we think, all right, it's been a week since the conventions ended in Minneapolis-Saint Paul. We would maybe get back to normal.

But we're really not back to normal yet. I mean, I think we had a bump. When you look at the polls before Denver, you saw that this race was, you know, Barack Obama a little bit ahead. In our polling, Hotline/Diageo, it was four points. Obama got a bump from Denver. He got up to about six or eight points. And now he's ahead in our last poll by one point.

All right. So, we're kind of basically just going through this cycle. I think what is going to matter is the polling taken maybe another week or so from now. We're still caught up in a lot of the convention mania. And, of course, this last week has been very Palin-focused, and a lot of these ads. So, I will be curious what happens in the next week.

MARGARET WARNER: Adam, this morning, David Plouffe, the Obama campaign manager, sent out this pre-dawn e-mail to, I think, half the world, laying out the coming strategy, at least in part.

Tell us about that. What did we learn about what they are planning to do, at least over the next two weeks, until the debate, first of all?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: Well, I think a couple of things.

One is, he wants to make clear, getting back to what Amy was saying, that people should not be paying that much attention to these polls now. I think that is what has been making a lot of people nervous and people overreacting to them.

It is too close to the event. It takes time for this stuff to shake out. That's point one.

Point two is, what they are looking at is not national polls. They are looking at what is happening in the 18 or so battleground states. And, as he is arguing, they are doing -- they are comparatively doing well in those 18 battleground states. And you want to wait to see what happens over the next couple of days to see exactly how much these conventions and the vice presidential selection sort of affected things.

The third thing is that they are going to really try to focus on this issue of change. They're arguing that, when McCain and his convention sort of said that this election is about change, and trying to sort of grasp the change mantle from Senator Obama by -- by picking Governor Palin, that they are now -- and Plouffe would argue -- Mr. Plouffe would argue, they're now arguing on the ground that Plouffe wants to argue on.

So, in other words, they are going to come at McCain -- you can see it in one of the ads today -- and say, how can you be for change if you have been in -- you have been in Washington for, whatever, 26 years? And how can you be for change if you have been close to President Bush?

So, I think those are the two main things we're going to see, the implausibility, they are going to argue, of the change argument coming from him, and also coming back to what has been the central strategic thrust of the Obama campaign against Senator McCain, which is trying to link him with President Bush, and to say, if you vote for Senator McCain, you are voting for a third term of President Bush.

Gaining control of perspective

MARGARET WARNER: All right, now, what -- what do we know, Amy, about the McCain campaign going forward to this final two weeks before the first debate, that is?

AMY WALTER: Well, we know that there has been a lot of talk about Sarah Palin actually spending more time stumping with John McCain. There has not been an official outline of what this would look like.

But, you know, the McCain campaign feels very different and people are feeling very different about where McCain is right now, partly because of the kind of crowds that John McCain is getting. Somebody said the other day, you know, he is getting Obama-sized crowds. They are coming out to see Sarah Palin. They are energized.

And, normally, what you do by this point in an election, 50-something days left, you let your vice president go and cover half the states. You cover the rest of them as the presidential nominee. You know, if you are together, you are missing out on half the states you could be covering.

That said, I -- what they are hoping is, the more that Palin is with McCain, the harder it is to do what Adam was saying for the Obama campaign, to talk about linking with George Bush, to talk about how this isn't about change.

What I find fascinating, what the McCain campaign is also trying to do is also change the terms of debate about change. What McCain is saying is, let's make this a debate about who is a maverick, and, whereas, Obama is saying, let's talk about who is change from Bush.

And, so, McCain can come back to say, I fought against my party. Obama hasn't. You want to talk about a voting record? This guy has voted with Democrats almost 100 percent of the time. He has that -- the most liberal record, according to National Journal magazine -- right, we will see those sort of debates -- whereas Obama, of course, wants to be able to say, no, if you are about change, you have to change from the George Bush policies.

MARGARET WARNER: And, very briefly, to you both, very briefly, what does history tell us, anyway, about the prospect for really much movement in public opinion between now and the first debate? And what do the people inside the campaign think about that?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: I mean, history suggests that it varies from year to year.

I mean, I think what you're going to see is, in a couple of days, as Amy was saying, polling is going to come out that is going to give you a really sort of realistic picture of where this race is.

But this remains a very tightly divided country. And I don't think you should expect to see any major changes in poll numbers before -- at least before the debates, unless something really, really significant happens.

AMY WALTER: I totally agree, although there has been nothing normal or traditional about this election. So, I'm not going to be sort of surprised about anything.

We keep using these benchmarks from past elections to try to define this election. And they keep falling by the wayside.

MARGARET WARNER: Amy Walter, Adam Nagourney, thank you both.

ADAM NAGOURNEY: Thank you.