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Headed Toward Election Day, Candidates Hammer Messages Home in Battlegrounds

October 20, 2008 at 6:20 PM EDT
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After a recap of the latest news from the campaign trail, Gwen Ifill talks to political analysts Amy Walter and Stuart Rothenberg about key congressional races and how the electoral map is shaping up in the final weeks before the election.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The latest developments in the presidential campaign. NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman reports.

KWAME HOLMAN: The weekend’s campaign headlines belonged to Barack Obama.

First, his campaign announced early yesterday that it raised $150 million in September, shattering the previous one-month record of $66 million, which Obama set in August.

Then, a few hours later, Obama received perhaps the highest-profile endorsement left in the campaign: Colin Powell’s.

TV NARRATOR: From NBC News in Washington, this is “Meet the Press.”

KWAME HOLMAN: The Republican who served as President Bush’s secretary of state made the announcement on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

COLIN POWELL, Former U.S. Secretary of State: He has both style and substance. He has met the standard of being a successful president, being an exceptional president.

I think he is a transformational figure. He is a new generation coming into the world — onto the world stage, onto the American stage. And for that reason, I’ll be voting for Sen. Barack Obama.

KWAME HOLMAN: Powell said he admired John McCain, but expressed concerns about the Republican’s approach to the economic crisis, the selection of Sarah Palin as a running mate, and the party’s rightward shift in recent years.

Powell also lamented attempts by some Republicans to raise doubts about Obama’s religious faith.

COLIN POWELL: I’m also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say, and it is permitted to be said, such things as, “Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.”

Well, the correct answer is, “He is not a Muslim; he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian.”

But the really right answer is, “What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?” The answer’s no. That’s not America.

Is there something wrong with some 7-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, “He’s a Muslim, and he might be associated terrorists.” This is not the way we should be doing it in America.

KWAME HOLMAN: Obama reacted to Powell’s endorsement at a rally yesterday in Fayetteville, N.C., near Fort Bragg.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-Ill.): This is a city and a state that knows something about great soldiers.

And this morning, a great soldier, a great statesman, a great American has endorsed our campaign for change.

I have been honored to have the benefit of his wisdom and his counsel from time to time over the last few years. But today, I am beyond honored. I am deeply humbled to have the support of Gen. Colin Powell.

KWAME HOLMAN: McCain talked about Powell’s decision to support his opponent during an appearance on “Fox News Sunday.”

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-Ariz.): Well, I’ve always admired and respected General Powell. We’re longtime friends. This doesn’t come as a surprise.

But I’m also very pleased to have the endorsement of four former secretaries of state, Secretaries Kissinger, Baker, Eagleburger and Haig. And I’m proud to have the endorsement of well over 200 retired Army generals and admirals.

KWAME HOLMAN: Today, in St. Charles, Mo., McCain once again hammered at Obama’s tax plan using the example of Joe the plumber, an Ohio man who confronted Obama on the issue during a recent campaign stop.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: After months of campaign-trail eloquence — and you certainly saw the eloquence — but the fact is we finally learned what Sen. Obama’s economic goal is. As he told Joe, he wants to “spread the wealth around.”

He believes in redistributing wealth, not in policies that grow our economy and create jobs and opportunities for all Americans. Sen. Obama is more interested in controlling who gets your piece of the pie than in growing the pie.

KWAME HOLMAN: Obama responded at a rally in Tampa, Fl., this afternoon.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: It is true that I want to roll back the Bush tax cuts on the very wealthiest Americans and go back to the rate that they paid under Bill Clinton.

John McCain calls that socialism. What he forgets — conveniently — is that, just a few years ago, he himself said those Bush tax cuts were irresponsible. He said he couldn’t in good conscience support a tax cuts where the benefits went to the wealthy at the expense of middle-class Americans who most need tax relief. That’s his quote.

Well, he was right then, and I am right now.

KWAME HOLMAN: Obama will spend a second day in Florida tomorrow, while McCain turns his attention to another battleground state, Pennsylvania.

Powell's endorsement

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gwen Ifill takes it from there.

GWEN IFILL: Now, for more on the latest campaign news and to tell us how they see the electoral map two weeks before Election Day, we're joined by Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report, and Amy Walter, editor-in-chief of the Hotline, National Journal's political daily.

The big news of the weekend, Amy, was the Colin Powell endorsement yesterday on "Meet the Press." We know that endorsements have limited sometimes effect, but this is Colin Powell, after all. How big a deal?

AMY WALTER, editor-in-chief, The Hotline: Well, it certainly is a big deal and one that both of them wanted to get, certainly, but I think the point we're at in this campaign, it's more like the cherry on top of the sundae, in that I think, for voters, the number of voters that Barack Obama needed to get to believe that he was up to the job, where he passed the threshold for that number of voters already, getting the Colin Powell endorsement didn't bring them there, but it may help secure them there.

GWEN IFILL: Did it hurt McCain more than it helped Obama?

STUART ROTHENBERG, Rothenberg Political Report: Well, obviously, the McCain folks would have loved to have that endorsement. It would have helped turn things around, some momentum.

But generally I agree with Amy. I think this endorsement would have been a bigger deal in September, when McCain had the momentum, when the Democrats were looking to turn it around. Now it's kind of the P.S., the postscript on a letter that's already written.

GWEN IFILL: Does it just put an end to the discussion about whether Barack Obama passes muster on experience or passes muster on comfort-level questions, I guess?

AMY WALTER: Well, I think it would have been a bigger deal if we were talking about national security in this last two weeks of the election instead of talking about the economy.

IFILL: Which we're not.

AMY WALTER: And so I think for a lot of voters the issue of experience and competence is still focused on the economy rather than foreign policy.

Obama's advantages

GWEN IFILL: One-two punch this weekend. The other big punch was the $150 million September fundraising numbers from Barack Obama. Now, let's break that down a little bit. What does that really mean, other than those big round numbers? Does it get spent a certain way which changes the base of this election?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Oh, well, I think it means that the Obama campaign can spend in many, many states, decide where to target the money, but have so much money they don't have to make choices. They can spend it in a toss-up. They can spend it in the states that are leaning Republican. I mean, I think it's a huge factor.

We always thought Sen. Obama would have a significant advantage, but many people said, "Well, the Republican National Committee has tens of millions of dollars. That will come in. It will kind of offset his advantage."

But with this much fundraised in one month, the McCain people are not only not matching Obama in ads, they're not matching him in states.

GWEN IFILL: I read somewhere this weekend that, if you spend the weekend in West Virginia of all places, that there are a lot of Obama ads on the air there. Is that an example of what Stu's talking about?

AMY WALTER: Exactly. I mean, you can afford to play anywhere you want. The map is just wide open to you.

At this point in a campaign, most candidates are trying to figure out how they're going to get through the next couple of weeks. He's trying to figure out how to spend all that money. And there becomes a law of diminishing returns at some point. I mean, there are just so many ads you can buy, even with that much money.

STUART ROTHENBERG: One month ago, none of us would have said that the...

STUART ROTHENBERG: ... Obama campaign would be running ads in West Virginia. I think that's noteworthy.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let's talk about the state of the race. When we look at the toss-up, the battlegrounds, the leanings, all the words you guys use to describe the state of this map, what does it tell us about the trends, not the outcome so much, but where we're trending?

AMY WALTER: It's just trending toward Obama. I mean, the states where we would say, "OK, these are states that maybe John McCain can put into play," remember, he was going to go on the offense in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, those are really getting taken off the table.

For states that were looking like they may be leaning a little bit toward McCain, traditionally red states, North Carolina, we talked a little bit about West Virginia. Virginia now looking -- it's not solidly in the Obama camp, but looking better for Obama than ever.

Colorado, all these red states now are places where Obama is looking to have at least a slight advantage. And there's not one blue state where you see McCain having an advantage.

McCain defends his turf

GWEN IFILL: So where is McCain now devoting his attention?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, just like Obama. He's playing defense or he's trying to hold states that George Bush won twice, so he's focusing on North Carolina, and Missouri, and Indiana, Florida. I think he may have to focus on Montana and North Dakota, shockingly.

GWEN IFILL: North Dakota and Montana are tight?

STUART ROTHENBERG: The polls suggest that those places are close. So, yes, Amy's exactly right. Places like Colorado and Virginia that we thought were kind of on the cusp of this election now have moved into Obama's column.

GWEN IFILL: Is there any evidence that any of the tactics, the strategy that we've seen in the last few weeks, particularly talking about the William Ayers connections and that sort of thing, has slowed any of this momentum?

AMY WALTER: No. I mean, I think we're going to start to see the national polls tighten simply because folks are now starting to come home, so to speak. So we're starting to see that, where McCain has been underperforming with some traditional groups, like white men, I think he's going to start to pick up among that.

So to see a 10-point advantage going into the election, I don't think we're going to see anything like that. It's probably going to be 4 or 5 points.

But if you were looking at some of these specific states where you do have a large concentration of Hispanics, where you have new voters, where you have African-American voters, those gaps aren't going to get any smaller.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Yes, the McCain folks would say that there is some movement. They are talking about the national polls closing.

I don't see anything dramatic. And I still think McCain has got a lot to do to turn the race around.

GWEN IFILL: So we're watching this race on several different levels. Let's go down ballot to some of the key Senate races, particularly -- one by one, let's go through a couple of the big ones.

In Kentucky, where Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, is defending his seat, he's having a tougher row to hoe than we would have thought.

AMY WALTER: Well, it's a bad year to be a Republican anywhere, even for a candidate like Mitch McConnell, who's known as a tough campaigner. He has gone up and fought in tough races before. So he's really battling the environment more than anything else.

And Democrats like to take...

GWEN IFILL: Who's he running against?

AMY WALTER: He's running against Bruce Lunsford, who has run for office before. He's a business executive. This is one of these situations, too, where this is a place where Democrats would love to see a win for the psychological advantage, to take a leader down on the Republican side in the same way that Republicans took out Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader, a few years ago.

Key Senate races

GWEN IFILL: In Georgia, another big state that everybody is watching, that wasn't supposed to be competitive, either.

STUART ROTHENBERG: No. At least with the McConnell race, we figure that Mitch McConnell was going to draw a tough Democratic front. We knew he had somebody who could raise and spend money.

In Georgia, the Democrats had a primary with a bunch of what most people would say are second-tier candidates. They nominated a former state rep named Jim Martin, who had really no money, no statewide name I.D., in a Republican state.

This is the best example, it seems to me, of the Democratic wave that's crashing even more strongly down ballot than at the presidential level.

Saxby Chambliss, just because he's an incumbent in a state with a significant African-American population and a substantial number of white voters who will vote and have voted Democratic in the past, suddenly, Saxby Chambliss is in major, major trouble against a candidate nobody knows.

GWEN IFILL: So even if the presidential Democrat does not win, that this can still turn at the Senate level or even at the House level?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Oh, absolutely.

AMY WALTER: Absolutely. That's why you're hearing about Obama going into some of these states. If he goes into Kentucky, if he goes into Georgia, it may not ultimately put him over the top, but it could be enough to help the candidates down ballot.

GWEN IFILL: Minnesota, we've been here before with this third-party issue. We now see that what we had thought was a nice, simple race between an incumbent, Norm Coleman, and the comedian, Al Franken, the Democrat, has now turned into something more.

AMY WALTER: Well, we do have the third-party candidate, Dean Barkley, who did serve in the Senate for a very short period of time, replacing the late Paul Wellstone, but he's getting about 18 percent of the vote.

I don't think we're going to see Dean Barkley pulling a Jesse Ventura here and winning the race, but what we are seeing...

GWEN IFILL: But he could pull a Ross Perot, is what you're saying?

AMY WALTER: Yes, is he pulling -- this is really the fascinating thing for me, which was you'd think a third-party candidate who's running against the incumbent with Al Franken running against the incumbent, any anti-incumbent vote would go then and split between the two of them.

But what seems to be happening is that's not enough to help Norm Coleman, that Norm Coleman is being weighed down by everything that's going on in this political environment. And he's even losing more vote share between two candidates. It's still not enough for him to win with a plurality.

STUART ROTHENBERG: There was a time when Republicans laughed at this race and said there's no way that Al Franken can get 50 percent of the vote. Just no way.

Well, now he doesn't have to. With Dean Barkley getting anywhere from 15 percent to 18 percent, the winner in this case could end up with 40 percent, 42 percent, 45 percent of the vote. And I don't think anybody doubts that Al Franken could get there.

GWEN IFILL: And, all of a sudden, there are these other tipping-point states, Mississippi and Maine, and Oregon, where the Republican incumbent is running ads linking himself to Ted Kennedy and Barack Obama.

AMY WALTER: Yes, Gordon Smith in Oregon has been -- I don't know if there's a Democrat he hasn't linked himself to yet. I mean, he has been trying as much as possible to show himself to be this moderate, bipartisan kind of senator.

Again, in a year like this, I mean, I think Oregon we've agreed from the very beginning, this was one of those bellwether districts or states, where it's not about the Democratic candidate as much as it is about the environment.

And none -- you see this in Senate race after Senate race, where these incumbents are throwing basically anything that they can, seeing if something is going to stick. And we've seen it in the Coleman race. We've seen it in Oregon. And it's, you know, not really taken that much hold.

STUART ROTHENBERG: The question is not about who's going to win -- who's going to control the Senate after November.

GWEN IFILL: Right. We know the answer to that question.

STUART ROTHENBERG: We do. The question now is whether the Democrats are going to win only six Senate seats to get up to 57 or whether they could win nine or ten.

And the problem for Republicans is this environment looks very much like two years ago, when the Republicans suffered significant losses. The environment is actually worse. The president's less popular. People want more change.

For Republicans, the worst-case scenario is, just like last time, all the close races go to the Democrats. That's what happens in a wave, and that's what Republicans are swimming against.

GWEN IFILL: And next time we'll talk about the House races. How's that?

Stu, Amy, thank you both very much.


AMY WALTER: Thank you.