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GOP Delegates Bring Strong Convictions to Convention

September 2, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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At the Republican convention in St. Paul, GOP delegates have been discussing the economic downturn and their support for Sen. John McCain's policies. The NewsHour speaks with delegates from Michigan about their viewpoints and with political experts about the delegates' differences, similarities to voters.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO, NewsHour Correspondent: First Lady Laura Bush’s visit with the Michigan delegates this morning highlighted the state’s importance in November.

LAURA BUSH, First Lady of the United States: Michigan could be the Ohio of this time. You know, Michigan could be the state that carries the ticket for us.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: For Michigan’s delegates, the economy seems to be a top concern this election. Retired General Motors worker Ron Michals said the state had been severely hit.

RON MICHALS, Michigan Delegate: There’s an old saying that, when the country catches cold, Michigan catches pneumonia. It’s been heavily relying on industry, and building cars, and everything that goes with it, so there have been slumps like that.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Michals has three sons who have lost jobs, contributing to Michigan’s 8.5 percent unemployment rate, the nation’s highest. Since 2000, the state has lost more than 250,000 manufacturing jobs.

Real estate businessman Dennis Buchholtz, a delegate from Warren, said McCain’s plans for keeping taxes low would help spur economic growth.

DENNIS BUCHHOLTZ, Michigan Delegate: I’ve never been hired by a poor man. You take the money away from a rich man, he’s the only one that’s got the money to build the factory or build the shopping center. And you raise the taxes to the level that we used to have, and the money leaves the country.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Gerald Wall, a delegate from Higgins Lake, argued for more government aid to the auto industry, a view he acknowledged may not be shared by many fellow delegates.

GERALD WALL, Michigan Delegate: Well, you know, some people talk about the Chrysler bailout, if you were around then. It did work.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: That sounds surprising coming from a Republican.

GERALD WALL: Well, it worked — I understand that. And I am very, very conservative. But the old saying, “Desperate people do desperate things.”

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Delegate Carol Curtin of Evart (ph), meanwhile, said she was confident McCain’s overall leadership ability would help Michigan’s struggling economy.

CAROLYN CURTIN, Michigan Delegate: I can’t say that I’ve actually studied McCain’s economic proposal to know it really well. I just have confidence in him and his demeanor. And I think that he’s the right person to lead our country forward.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: More than half the voters in Michigan’s January Republican primary ranked the economy as their most important issue.

JIM LEHRER: And more on who are the Republicans now from Ray Suarez.

Delegates and Voters Differ

RAY SUAREZ: And, Jim, for that, I'm joined by Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, and Amy Walter, editor-in-chief of the Hotline, National Journal's political daily.

Well, Andy, let's broaden out that portrait we just got of Michigan's delegates to the delegates as a whole. How do they line up with people who vote for their party and with other Americans?

ANDREW KOHUT, President, Pew Research Center: Well, it's certainly a very distinct demographic crowd: 93 percent of them are white; 68 percent of them are male. It's quite different than we saw last week, when only 67 percent were white and only 51 percent were male.

This is a married -- largely 80 percent of these people are married. Among the Democratic delegates, it was only 68 percent.

They're more affluent, they're more educated than Republican voters at large, but that was characteristic of the Democrats, too. They're well-educated and affluent people who are delegates and grassroots politicians.

RAY SUAREZ: Amy, you've seen the numbers. What jumped out at you in this portrait of the Republican delegates?

AMY WALTER, Editor-in-Chief, The Hotline: What's interesting coming after the Michigan piece here, which is you ask the delegates, you know, do you think this country is in a recession? And 24 percent of delegates say they think it is; 72 percent say no.

Last week, when we talked to Democratic delegates, 90 percent of them said, yes, we're in a recession, and only 8 percent said, no, we weren't. They thought that -- they like the job that Bush is doing on the economy: 70 percent said that, as opposed to 24 percent of all voters.

Even Republicans across-the-board, Republican voters, are less -- feels less strong about Bush's stewardship of the economy, less strongly about that than them.

So this is a group as a whole, just like we talked about with the Democrats, I mean, this is -- obviously, you come to a convention because you're here to talk to people that are a lot like you on a whole host of issues. And then it's sort of, you know, it's an echo chamber.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, how has the last four years treated this party? A lot of these delegates were with us at the 2004 convention in New York.

ANDREW KOHUT: This has not been a good four years for the Republican Party. Four years ago, 33 percent of American voters said that they were Republicans. It's only 28 percent in the surveys that we've done over the past three months.

Republicans have lost ground among independents. There are more independents who lean to the Democrats than four years ago.

And they've lost a fair amount of support among young people, among middle-aged people, middle-income people, and in the suburbs, the center of the electorate.

And these are tough times for the Republicans. And they're really running at a disadvantage.

Party trouble on issues

RAY SUAREZ: Running at a disadvantage, suggests Andy, but what issues are they going to run on? Where do they have or believe they have -- and when you look at what they think ails the country -- where do they have some points that they can bring to the country for the fall?

AMY WALTER: Well, I think why you're seeing so much enthusiasm on the floor right now for Sarah Palin is this idea that this is somebody not only who speaks to them from a conservative point of view on social issues and fiscal issues, but somebody that they think can sell well across the rest of the country, somebody who's -- right, she's a self-described hockey mom.

She can go in there and talk to a lot of these folks in the suburbs and in rural areas who, you know, raising a family, being a mom, she gets these kitchen-table issues, hoping that that's the way you go in and get some of those kinds of voters back.

RAY SUAREZ: Are there places where there's, Andy, some joy for the Republicans, some positive numbers, some things that they can work on that -- where they agree more with the voters as a whole than the Democrats?

ANDREW KOHUT: Not many. Not many. I mean, I think the only area of real strength for the Republican Party continues to be as seen as the party better able to protect the country from terrorist attacks, but they trail by 20 points and 30 points on the environment, on energy, on health care, and by 19 points on the environment.

They've got to in some way instill in voters a renewed confidence that this party speaks to solutions to problems that the public thinks have been ignored during the Bush years.

And they're really under a cloud. The best thing they have going for them is that John McCain has been a broadly popular presidential candidate, especially among independent voters.

AMY WALTER: And this is what's the interesting challenge for John McCain, that is, coming in front of these people we just described as being very conservative. They think George Bush is doing a good job on a whole host of issues that the rest of the country doesn't feel the same way about.

And he has to go out there and give a speech to the rest of the country that's going to make a lot of those people in the room potentially cringe. I had a Republican say that to me today, which is, "If he's successful in his speech on Thursday night, it will be making people like me kind of cringe a little bit in the end."

And that's hard to do when you're in front of your own folks on a stage like that.

RAY SUAREZ: But it's because of the way these Democrats -- these delegates, excuse me, do not agree with the voters as a whole on some of these issues?


RAY SUAREZ: I mean, you have to...

AMY WALTER: You have to distance yourself from Bush. It's not even the issues as much as distancing yourself from the president, a president that these folks feel is doing a good job on the economy, is doing a good job on the war in Iraq. That's going to be a very different than McCain needs to send to the people who are watching this on television.

RAY SUAREZ: Amy Walter, Andrew Kohut, thank you both.