JIM LEHRER: There’s the vice presidential build-ups, new polls, and negative ads, among other things, with the national party conventions now only days away.
For a reporting look at where the campaign stands tonight, we go to Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today, and Adam Nagourney, chief political reporter for the New York Times.
OK, Susan, who has Barack Obama chosen? You reported today — your paper reported today that he said he’s chosen the running mate. Now, who is it?
SUSAN PAGE, USA Today: ┬áWell, we’re taking it the first step. My colleague, Kathy Kiley, had an interview with Barack Obama in Chester, Va., this afternoon. He said he’d made his decision. He wouldn’t tell us if he had told the person he chose about that yet.
We can only assume he told his choice before he told us, but we don’t know who it is. I do think, though, that things are now in motion and it’s only a matter of hours before we start getting leaks on who it is.
JIM LEHRER: Adam, do you agree? What about the so-called Biden buzz, the Joe Biden buzz? It was in the wires today. Is that real?
ADAM NAGOURNEY, Chief Political Correspondent, New York Times: Yes, it’s real as, I think, any of this stuff is. I mean, the sort of conventional wisdom is that there are three candidates out there, Joe Biden, Even Bayh, and Tim Kaine, the governor of Virginia.
I don’t think anyone really knows. I mean, some of it’s some reporting. Some of it’s sort of informed guessing.
In terms of timing, they’ve done a very good job of keeping this a secret. And I can see where Susan would be right that this is going to start leaking out tonight, but I can also see, knowing these guys — and they’re very deliberate, they know what they want to do — that they might put it off a day.
And, in fact, Senator Barack Obama might not tell his running mate, his new running mate until tomorrow or even tomorrow night or even Saturday morning.
As far as we know — and, again, we’re just trying to read some tea leaves here — the first time they’re going to appear together publicly is going to be Saturday in Springfield, Ill., which is the place where, on a very cold morning about two years ago, Senator Barack Obama announced for the presidency.
JIM LEHRER: And Abraham Lincoln had a connection there, too…
JIM LEHRER: … early on, yes, right.
Vice presidential choice
JIM LEHRER: What do you think about this, the way the Obama campaign has handled this, Susan? They've really built up the momentum, have they not, at least the momentum of curiosity?
SUSAN PAGE: That's right. Obama came back from his Hawaii vacation. He's really dominated the week's news attention with just all the speculation, most of it, I think, uninformed. I think the people who know aren't talking, and the people who are talking don't know about who he's going to pick.
But it's gotten a lot of buzz. You know, this race has gone on for almost two years. This has injected some excitement into this race and into the convention that's coming up next week. And I think that's all to the good from the point of view of the Obama team.
JIM LEHRER: And, Adam, they're going to make the announcement itself -- they're going to do the thing in Springfield, but, before that, it's an unusual wrinkle on this, right, as to how they're actually going to announce it?
ADAM NAGOURNEY: Yes. What they're going to do is they're going to send out, so they say, a text message or e-mail to millions of supporters and reporters who have signed up to get it. That will be the first time it will come out.
There's one thing interesting about this. It's interesting. I agree with Susan about how they've sort of dominated the news this week with the speculation about it.
But what strikes me about this is the fact that he's going to announce it tomorrow at the earliest or Saturday. It's actually, in many ways, evidence that they don't look at the vice presidential choice as that significant to his campaign.
I mean, compare it to what John Kerry did four years ago, and there was, like, six days of traveling all around the country. This will be a day. And it has more of a feeling of checking the box.
And my guess is, when we look back at this, this will be something they were trying most of all to do no harm. But this is going to be, in the end, a race between John McCain and Barack Obama. And the vice presidential thing is part of it, and I know we're spending tons of time talking about it, but I don't think they look at it as that big a deal for them.
JIM LEHRER: Do you see it the same way, Susan?
The running mate's weight
SUSAN PAGE: Well, I think it may be a somewhat bigger deal than Adam is indicating, especially -- if he chooses Joe Biden, I think that goes to helping, complementing a problem Barack Obama has, and that's his lack of experience in Washington generally and his lack of experience on national security affairs in particular.
Joe Biden, of course, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, would offer him a lot of -- some additional credentials, his team, the team some additional credentials in that regard.
But I do agree that, at the end of the day, Americans vote between the two people who are at the top of the ticket, not at the running mates.
ADAM NAGOURNEY: And if I could intervene...
JIM LEHRER: Yes.
ADAM NAGOURNEY: ... the other thing I would point out is, you know, I was thinking about this. I think the last time -- and, Susan, tell me if you think about exceptions -- the last time where a vice presidential selection really made a difference was in 1960, when Kennedy picked LBJ.
I used to think that the Clinton pick of Gore in '92 was critical. I'm not sure it was. And, in fact, the example of the one vice presidential selection which should have really hurt a nominee, Dan Quayle in 1988 -- George Bush, I don't even think George Bush would disagree with that -- he won that election.
So I'm just -- I think these things are important, but I don't think they're quite as important to electoral outcome as one might think, considering all the resources the media is devoting to this.
SUSAN PAGE: You know, Adam, I would just point out one other example, and that's George W. Bush in 2000. I think his choice of Dick Cheney did exactly what a Joe Biden pick might do for Barack Obama.
I think Cheney, who's become, of course, enormously controversial in the interim, at the point of the 2000 election, it was re-assuring to a lot of Americans who had some questions about Governor Bush's experience.
Now he's become, of course, a real lightning rod for the administration, but that's another case where I don't think the election turned on Cheney's choice, but I do think it was helpful to George W. Bush in a close race.
JIM LEHRER: Does your reporting reflect the same thing Adam said, that part of the thinking here is "do no harm" with this election, which would mean a safe choice rather than some risky choice?
SUSAN PAGE: In medicine and in politics, a good rule to follow.
JIM LEHRER: And you agree with yourself, right, Adam?
ADAM NAGOURNEY: I do. But if I prove to be wrong, we'll pretend this never happened. I'll just argue the other way.
Polls show gap closing
JIM LEHRER: OK. What about the polls, Susan? There have been some -- the newest polls show this race has tightened up. What's behind that?
SUSAN PAGE: Well, I do think the race has gotten a little bit tighter. It's essentially even now. Barack Obama's lead is down to 1 or 2 points, if you average the last several national polls.
I think it got tighter for a couple of reasons. He was on vacation for a week. That gave open field to John McCain. John McCain's negative ads, I think, succeeded in chipping away a bit at the luster around Barack Obama.
And I think Barack Obama continues to face the task of kind of closing the deal with some voters who are inclined to want to vote for a Democrat for president, but are not yet sure they want to vote for this Democrat for president.
JIM LEHRER: How do you read the polls, Adam?
ADAM NAGOURNEY: Yes, I agree with that. I do think it's early and that a lot of people are not paying attention. And a lot of people say they have not heard enough to make a decision. But there is a reluctance, clearly, for some people to rally around Barack Obama.
I think part of that is race, no question about that. Part of that is experience.
And I think that the McCain campaign has done a very good job over these past two weeks of sort of painting Obama as sort of kind of odd, not one of us, elite, you know, the whole sort of thing, you know, him going to Hawaii.
But, you know, this is a dead period. In a weird way, Senator Barack Obama was really not playing. And you can see him now beginning to pick up, pick up and begin attacking now, so I think we're moving into a much more consequential period of this campaign.
JIM LEHRER: And he's fighting back now, is he not, Susan, like he had not been before? At least that's what some of the folks said.
SUSAN PAGE: He's definitely taken a somewhat sharper tone this week than he had before. You know, his task is to sell himself, to make people comfortable with himself. It's also to define John McCain.
He needs to define John McCain as a third term of George Bush. And that may be a little difficult to do, given the history between those two men.
But that is, I think -- I think those are the two things that the Obama team really sees as their goals for this convention, introduce Americans who might be reluctant about Barack Obama to him and also help define John McCain not as a maverick and appealing independent, but rather someone who's going to offer you the same policies that George Bush has.
JIM LEHRER: Adam, is it a clean tit-for-tat negative exchange right now between the two?
ADAM NAGOURNEY: Well, if you had asked me this a couple of days ago, I would say no. And, in fact, one of the interesting things in the New York Times-CBS News poll -- excuse me, I think it was actually the NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, one of the polls.
JIM LEHRER: The other poll. The other polls.
ADAM NAGOURNEY: They were both fabulous polls. I just don't want to get in trouble here. It was that people thought that McCain was sort of a lot more attacking than explaining what he wants to do. And I think that's probably an objective truth leading up to about a week ago.
Candidates exchange new jabs
ADAM NAGOURNEY: Obama began airing -- I actually think they were planning to do this all along -- began airing tough comparative ads of all views negative in various battleground states. And you could hear it -- as Susan was saying, you could hear it reflected in his rhetoric on the campaign trail over the past couple days.
I believe -- or I'm pretty sure, based on reporting -- they're setting the table for the convention. We're beginning to hear the themes that we're going to hear in the convention, and it's going to be a lot of economic contrast. It's going to be a lot of John McCain is out of touch, this whole thing, attacking him for not knowing how many houses he owned when he was interviewed by Politico the other day. I think that's part of it, too.
So I do think the next time we're asked this question, are you spending more time attacking or explaining, that the two guys will be pretty close.
JIM LEHRER: Thus far, Susan, based on your reporting, is that houses story -- is there any traction on that yet for Obama against McCain?
SUSAN PAGE: Well, the Democrats certainly...
JIM LEHRER: You ought to explain, first of all -- explain, again, what it is.
SUSAN PAGE: The issue -- John McCain was asked in an interview with Politico yesterday how many houses he had. And he couldn't answer. And he said he wasn't sure and his staff would get back to -- back to the reporter.
And then his staff said they had four houses. And then it turned out some people say he has seven and some people say he has 11. He clearly has, you know, a lot of houses. These are houses actually owned by his wife, Cindy...
JIM LEHRER: Who's very wealthy.
SUSAN PAGE: ... who's very wealthy. They're not houses owned directly by John McCain.
Well, the Obama people and the Democratic National Committee leapt on this as evidence that John McCain does not understand the lives that most Americans live. I know how many houses I own. Perhaps you know how many houses you own.
JIM LEHRER: I do.
SUSAN PAGE: You have to own a lot of houses to not know how many houses you own. So the McCain people had previously been trying to paint Obama as kind of elitist and out of touch. Well, this was a big opportunity, a gift to them, to try to make that same case against John McCain.
ADAM NAGOURNEY: Right, because the narrative here that they've been trying to paint is this guy, Republican, wealthy, doesn't understand the concerns of average Americans, so when he -- and it might have been a flip response -- when he was talking at a forum in California over the weekend, he was asked what he defined rich to be, and he said $5 million income. I mean, I think it was kind of a flip response, but it did build into this narrative.
And one of the things -- another thing we found out in our poll that was interesting was that a lot of people said that they relate more easily to Barack Obama than they do to Senator McCain.
So, again, this sort of plays into this. So I think these are important things that are going on right now.
JIM LEHRER: OK. Adam, Susan, thank you both very much.
ADAM NAGOURNEY: Thank you.