GWEN IFILL: For more on what the two candidates are doing to seal the deal, we turn to Amy Walter, editor-in-chief of the Hotline, National Journal’s political daily, and Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today.
Susan Page, based on what we heard Barack Obama say today, what is the substance of his closing argument?
SUSAN PAGE, USA Today: Barack Obama is saying, “It’s been a tough eight years. We need a change. I’ll offer you change. The other guy won’t.” I think that’s the essence of his closing arguments. It’s been, in fact, the essence of his campaign for the last six months.
GWEN IFILL: It sounded, Amy, like the essence of his opening argument.
AMY WALTER, Editor-in-Chief, The Hotline: Of his opening argument for the rest of — yes, for his tenure as president, is that what you’re suggesting? Yes.
I mean, I think that what he’s doing right now, it’s really interesting watching these two candidates, which is Obama seems to be sort of opening his message, where — and trying to sort of bring it, as we’ve heard all along, bring as many people together as possible, the blue states and the red states, and the hope, and all those words.
And McCain is much more focused and his message is much more closed, as it would be — focused much more on his base and in turning out those voters that he’s worried are not enthusiastic enough to come out on Election Day.
So one’s trying to expand the map, and one’s focusing much more narrowly.
GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s talk about the McCain message. There seemed to be a lot in that today. It was a full basket full of different messages.
SUSAN PAGE: Well, I think Senator McCain is looking for a message that’s going to work for him, that’ll get some traction, that will convince some voters who are for Obama now, but maybe aren’t quite so sure about it, to peel off, or those dwindling number of undecided voters to come to his side.
So for some of those, it might be taxes, might be the risk of electing someone who’s inexperienced. Really, whatever argument will work for you is an argument John McCain is willing to make now, because he’s in this unfortunate position of being on the struggling side of this campaign.
So he needs to be more negative. He needs to hammer at Senator Obama. He needs to raise questions about him, if he is to have any hopes of making this — threading this difficult course to him to 270 electoral votes.
Candidates urging people to vote
GWEN IFILL: So who are these voters that they're both going after? Are they the same group of people who are just sitting at home waiting for someone to say the most persuasive thing or are they different groups of people?
AMY WALTER: Right, because you wonder, at this point in the game, is there anybody who truly is undecided?
GWEN IFILL: One always wonders, yes.
AMY WALTER: We see these numbers, and it is dwindling. I mean, it's probably 5 percent or 6 percent who say that they truly are undecided.
But I do think that you're seeing these candidates focusing their message on two very different audiences and, as we pointed out earlier, in terms of what they're looking for, for the future.
And so, for John McCain, I think is -- Susan's right, that he's trying anything that works, but it's also making sure that he gets those voters that maybe are Republican-leaning or folks who are part of the base but may not be as motivated to turn out, giving them the messages that they want to hear, so talking about taxes, talking about the liberal Democratic establishment, those buzzwords to make sure that they are engaged, they actually get out and vote.
Because, again, we've been hearing over and over again that Democrats are turning out in large numbers in these early-vote states. And so engaging those voters is going to be important, especially if his strategy is to play defense, hold on to all those red states that George Bush was able to do, maybe pick up a blue one -- he talks a lot about Pennsylvania -- but hold on to the red, whereas Obama is going in and he's almost in every state it seems these days.
GWEN IFILL: Well, let's talk about the geography a little bit, Susan. What states -- if there's a path for John McCain, and if there is a path for Barack Obama, who is saying he's nervous, even though he seems to be ahead in so many of these polls, what are the states which are on that path?
SUSAN PAGE: Well, I think for Barack Obama the key is to be strong in the Mountain West. This is a new battleground region this year, Colorado, Nevada, also New Mexico, which has been close in the past.
That's given him -- his strength in those states has given him some leeway to lose Pennsylvania. If he happened to lose Pennsylvania, he could still win the presidency, because he has come through in this new battleground region, which I suspect we're going to be watching for a long time.
John McCain has a very precise path, as Amy said, hold the Bush states and maybe get Pennsylvania. And that leaves him -- it leaves him in the position of some Democratic presidential candidates in previous elections, where they can calculate how they can get to 270, but it means every single thing needs to fall their way.
Hoping to keep voters energized
GWEN IFILL: You know, I was watching these events over the weekend. You look at the crowds, the relative size of the crowds, and you wonder, "Does size matter?" Does crowd size matter in this case at this stage in a campaign or is that just atmospherics at this point?
AMY WALTER: I mean, I think a lot of it still is atmospherics. And let's remember: This was the debate we had in the Democratic primary, too, that, well, Barack Obama's crowds were so much larger, this indicates, of course, that he's going to win by a huge margin, and he would rack up these big events in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Obviously, he lost both of those states, so they weren't necessarily indicative of the final vote.
But what I think it does, especially for somebody like Barack Obama, who is trying to keep these new voters, these folks who he has helped to recruit and get them registered to vote, making sure that they understand that they're part of something bigger.
They see these pictures of him out with the throngs, that this is, you know, part of a bigger movement. That message is what he's really trying to drive home with these big rallies.
SUSAN PAGE: You know, the other thing I've noticed in these big rallies is increasing numbers of these people are people who've already voted, voted by mail, done early voting. You know, these are votes that are in the bank.
It means that there can be an event over the next week; it's not going to change their vote. It means they're not going to be peeled off by some last-minute argument.
That's another role of these huge crowds we've seen, is to get people to the polls early, to kind of guarantee that their vote is cast and is going to be there.
VP nominees' campaign trouble
GWEN IFILL: Let's talk about the vice presidential candidates on both sides. At this stage, at this moment in time, are they helping or are they hurting their candidates?
AMY WALTER: Well, I mean, I think it's pretty clear that Sarah Palin has not been helpful in these last couple of weeks here. Now, where she still could be helpful, I think, again, going and talking to the base.
But in terms of her broader message, if we are talking about picking up those true undecided voters, those folks who are on the fence either way, I think that a lot of questions have been raised.
And it seems like any time she tries to go out with whatever message it may be, it seems to be overshadowed by a controversy, and now it's obviously the $150,000 wardrobe.
GWEN IFILL: Now it's about infighting within the campaign.
AMY WALTER: And now it's the infighting with the campaign, who likes her, who doesn't. Is she really a diva? And who's speaking to her and who's not? And, right, and so that has been overshadowing everything.
And, in fact, that's been part of the story all along, right, that the Sarah Palin message, the one that we saw unveiled at the convention, never really got a chance to really percolate because of all the other issues that were surrounding her.
GWEN IFILL: What about Joe Biden?
SUSAN PAGE: Well, I think he's been helpful in that people see him as a credible president, but I think he's made some misstatements that have caused trouble in these last couple of weeks, including saying that a President Obama would be tested early on by foreign leaders.
I think the campaign spent a lot of time trying to put that one down. And with Sarah Palin...
GWEN IFILL: And the McCain campaign came out with an ad exploiting it.
SUSAN PAGE: Oh, yes. It really reinforced one of McCain's main messages, which is the risk of electing Barack Obama.
With Sarah Palin, I think you see her starting to think about elections down the road. She is now thinking not only about making McCain's case, but repairing her own image, because this is a woman I think we are going to be seeing not just in this election, but in future ones.
GWEN IFILL: And so everybody has got to do what they can in the next eight days to kind of repair -- to emerge from this somehow whole?
SUSAN PAGE: Well, you know, one ticket is going to emerge as the president and vice president of the United States, which is a pretty good way to emerge. I think it's the other side that worries about who's going to get blamed for what went wrong.
AMY WALTER: Right, including staff. So it's not just the candidates, but it's the people behind the candidates that are looking for what their next step will be after this election.
GWEN IFILL: OK, more to come. Amy Walter, Susan Page, thank you both very much.