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Candidates Pitch Messages of Change in Battlegrounds

September 8, 2008 at 6:30 PM EDT
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The presidential candidates began their first full week of campaigning following their official nominations by visiting key battleground states Monday. Political reporters discuss the status of the campaigns and what lies ahead.

RAY SUAREZ: Democrat Joe Biden campaigned this morning in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where he argued, McCain’s positions on key issues are no different than those of President Bush.

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D-DE), Vice Presidential Nominee: Name me something on the fundamentals of this economy and our foreign policy where John McCain and Sarah Palin say: This administration has been dead wrong. We must change.

Ladies and gentlemen, if you like, as the old expression goes, the last eight years, you will love the four years of a McCain/Palin administration, because there is no fundamental change. None, none, none.

RAY SUAREZ: Meanwhile, Republicans John McCain and Sarah Palin rallied supporters in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, outside Kansas City. Palin said Obama’s past spending requests as a senator make him part of the old culture of Washington.

GOV. SARAH PALIN (R-AK), Vice Presidential Nominee: In just three years, our opponent has requested nearly $1 billion in earmarks. That’s about a $1 million for every working day.

So, we have reformed the abuses of earmarks in our state, and I’m ready to help President John McCain end these corrupt practices once and for all.

RAY SUAREZ: McCain followed by saying his and Palin’s opposition to earmarks make them mavericks.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), Presidential Nominee: We have got to have a government that starts working for you and not for themselves.

And that’s what we’re going to do. And we will take them on. And we will take them on, my friends. We will take them on, and we will defeat them, because America knows it’s time for change, and it’s time for the right change.

Governor Palin took on the old bulls in her party. She ran against an incumbent Republican governor. I have taken on my own party from time to time when it’s necessary.

JOHN MCCAIN: And we will take them on. Senator Obama has never stood up to anyone in his party yet.

And that’s what Americans want is for us to stand up for America. And that’s what we will do.

New message, ads take on Obama

RAY SUAREZ: The McCain campaign sought to match its message on the trail with a new television ad today touting the change credentials of the Republican ticket.

NARRATOR: The original mavericks. He fights pork barrel spending. She stopped the bridge to nowhere.

MAN: Barack Obama.

RAY SUAREZ: But, in Flint, Michigan, this afternoon, Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama called the McCain campaign's attempts to portray Palin as an agent of change hard to believe.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), Presidential Nominee: They're starting to run an ad now saying she opposed the bridge to nowhere.

Well, now, let's get the facts clear. When she was mayor, she hired a Washington lobbyist to get earmarks, pork barrel spending. All the things that John McCain says is bad, she lobbied to get, and got a whole lot of it.

When it came to the bridge to nowhere, she was for it until everybody started raising a fuss about it, and she started running for governor. And then, suddenly, she was against it. Do you remember that, for it, before you were against it?

I mean, you can't just make stuff up.

You can't just recreate yourself.

You can't just reinvent yourself. The American people are not stupid.

What they're looking for -- what they're looking for is somebody who's been consistently calling for change.

RAY SUAREZ: The battle over the change mantle comes as three new polls show McCain received a bounce from last week's convention, making the race a very close one with less than two months to go.

Palin jumpstarted McCain's campaign

RAY SUAREZ: For a closer look at where things stand in the presidential race, I'm joined by Jill Zuckman of The Chicago Tribune -- she was recently on the campaign trail with John McCain and Sarah Palin -- and Beth Frerking, a senior editor at Politico.

Now, Jill, since you have just come off the trail, maybe we can begin by having you contrast what the McCain appearances were like before the convention and what they're like now.

JILL ZUCKMAN, Chief Congressional Correspondent, The Chicago Tribune: Absolutely.

Before he picked Sarah Palin to be his running mate, I would describe Senator McCain's crowds, at best, to be anemic, more like a Senate-race crowd than a presidential campaign.

But the day he picked Sarah Palin, they packed a stadium with 10,000 people. And every event since there has been supersized for McCain. Now, these may be standard crowds for Senator Obama, but it's really clear that there is a lot of enthusiasm out there, that they're able to put these crowds together now.

RAY SUAREZ: So, Beth, is it fair to conclude that a big part of the difference is Sarah Palin alone?

BETH FRERKING, Politico: I think that's definitely a big part of the difference. Basically, what she's done is Help energize that base, the very social conservatives in the party who were basically suspicious of John McCain. And when he made that pick, they suddenly said, we're there. We're going to vote. And not only are we going to vote; we're going to work him.

And, so, I think that's part of what we're saying -- we're seeing there.

RAY SUAREZ: Does she also get McCain a second look from people who were still undecided?

BETH FRERKING: Oh, I think she does.

And I think what we don't know yet, though, even though we have seen the polls get closer and closer recently, in the last few days, in fact, what we don't know is how that's going to play with those independent voters and those moderate conservative -- more conservative Democrats, who were looking to Hillary Clinton as their choice, and are now trying to figure out who they're going to support.

JILL ZUCKMAN: I mean, one issue is whether -- something like around 20 percent of Senator Clinton's supporters initially said they would not vote for Obama, that they were looking at McCain.

Now, it's not clear that Sarah Palin wins them over. In fact, those women may be repelled by her right-wing politics. I mean, she's very conservative. She may be too conservative for those voters, because, even though she and McCain are somewhat in sync on issues like abortion, he never talks about them. To her, they're central to her persona.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, some numbers I have seen would indicate that the big gap among women doesn't come around region or around income level, but around whether you're married or not.


Apparently, we're seeing from a new ABC poll, for example, that white married women, and particularly those with children, are really, really supporting Palin.

I think what we're going to have to wait to see is whether those who support abortion rights really make this a cause in terms of getting out their base and saying, this is someone who is a threat to over -- who could possibly help overturn the Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade. And we will see whether they get their supporters and voters out, sort of in direct response and against the McCain-Palin ticket.

RAY SUAREZ: But is this a case of a campaign harvesting voters it looked like it was going to get anyway, exurb, and rural, small-towners, rural, who might have been leaning McCain in the first place?

JILL ZUCKMAN: I understand what you're saying, but Senator McCain had a fragile relationship with some of these voters. They were not a done deal.

They were coming around since he won the primary, but they weren't crazy enthusiastic for him. They basically said, well, I can't live with Obama, so I guess I will vote for McCain.

But now they're actually excited about him. And they're excited about Palin in particular. And, so, I think that he needed that to all come together for him if he wanted to win.

McCain renews appeal with 'change'

RAY SUAREZ: At the same time, has there been a thematic change, Beth? Is it more now almost taking on some of the themes of the early Obama campaign...

BETH FRERKING: Absolutely.

RAY SUAREZ: ... and talking all about change?

BETH FRERKING: All about change.

And we're seeing Obama -- excuse me -- McCain really saying, you know, we're going to bring the change to Washington, and, of course, turning to his running mate and saying, this is someone who is really going to bring change.

The interesting thing is, is that that seems to forget that McCain has been in Washington for a long time. In fact, I think he recently surpassed Bob Dole on one of the news shows as having been on more than any other senator.

RAY SUAREZ: On "Face the Nation." He passed Bob Dole.

BETH FRERKING: Right. Exactly.

So, you know, that may be a hard thing for him to make with a lot of people.

But, certainly, they have suddenly taken up the mantle of change, to the point where the Obama people are sort of laughing about it. They're saying, we were the ones talking about change.

JILL ZUCKMAN: It's not just change. They had to remind people that he is a maverick...

BETH FRERKING: Yes. That's right.

JILL ZUCKMAN: ... that, remember, people always used to consider him as a maverick. And he sort of lost control of that mantle for a while. People were starting to forget it. So, they were reminding them of all the things he did to buck his own party and how he knows how to work things from the inside, so he can bring about changes, sort of bringing those themes all together.

RAY SUAREZ: So, when he makes his presentation to voters, can he -- and Beth just pointed out that he's been in Washington for much of his adult life -- can he dissociate himself from his own past by stressing that maverick theme?

JILL ZUCKMAN: One thing that he's saying that has really struck me the last few days is, he says: "I don't work for the special interests. I don't work for any party. I'm here to work for you."

He's just completely separated himself from his own Republican Party, which he just left in Saint Paul, Minnesota, you know, a couple days ago.

RAY SUAREZ: Yet, it's Republicans who are reporting huge new levels of enthusiasm for both ends of the ticket.

BETH FRERKING: That's right. We're seeing what they're saying closing the enthusiasm gap. And that is something that Obama and then the Obama-Biden ticket had in much bigger numbers and percentage-wise than the McCain ticket.

But, you know, what we will have to see is whether that lasts. That clearly again is with the base. And, as you said, are those people who would have already voted for him in the end, or are they -- you know, are they going to attract people, that middle group that we really know the least about, and the middle group that usually we don't know much about until the very end of the race?

It's probably -- it could be the last month or even couple of weeks before we know which way those folks are going to go.

Palin lets McCain lock down states

RAY SUAREZ: But do these trends that are showing up now in the weekend's worth of polling change the map? Are there states that are suddenly tossups that might have been leaning Obama, or now moving securely into the McCain column that might have been anybody's game before?

JILL ZUCKMAN: Well, the McCain campaign really believes that the West is coming back to them, that states that might have been flirting with Obama and that Obama was certainly running commercials there, that they don't have to worry about those states anymore.

RAY SUAREZ: States like?

JILL ZUCKMAN: States like Montana, for example. Colorado is extremely close, but I think the McCain campaign thinks that that will come home to them, now that they have got two Westerners on their ticket. And they consider Palin a Westerner.

I think you're again going to see this come down to Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania. I mean, the Obama campaign may still want to play in Georgia, which was sort of expanding the map for Democrats. But I think the McCain campaign doesn't really believe that that is up for grabs anymore.

RAY SUAREZ: Beth Frerking, on that same point?

BETH FRERKING: I really agree with Jill on this.

I think where we're going to see them is especially three states, and that's going to be Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio. And one of Hillary Clinton's charges, I imagine, from the Obama campaign is going to be to go and reconnect with those voters, particularly white women and blue-collar voters, in places like Ohio, where she did well. And they're going to say, we need your help there.

RAY SUAREZ: But Hillary -- quickly, Hillary Clinton has already indicated that she's not going to go after Sarah Palin. What exactly did she say?

BETH FRERKING: Well, she -- I think what she's saying is, she's not going to make it a catfight.

She will talk about the issues, but she does not want this to become fodder for the tabloids, an angry picture of Hillary vs. an angry picture of Sarah Palin.

What she wants to do is talk about the top of the ticket. She wants to talk about John McCain. And I think what we will hear her doing is repeating, you may be voting for a ticket, but really the person who is in charge is John McCain. And let me tell you how we differ, the Democrats and the Obama-Biden ticket, differs from John McCain.

RAY SUAREZ: Beth Frerking from Politico, Jill Zuckman from The Chicago Tribune, thank you both.

JILL ZUCKMAN: Thank you.

BETH FRERKING: Thank you, Ray.