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VP Debate, Battleground Strategies Top Campaign Headlines

October 3, 2008 at 6:35 PM EDT
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This week, Congress pushed through a massive financial rescue plan and vice presidential hopefuls faced off in a key debate. Analysts Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks weigh all things politics.
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TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

The conventional wisdom today is that Sarah Palin survived and the race goes on. Do you have any dispute with that, 24 hours later?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: No. I mean, if you look at the strategies that each set out to achieve, I thought they both achieved their strategies.

Biden and Obama are ahead, so he was sober and serious, didn’t take any risk, but was very good.

She was behind. She’s got to prove she’s different than Bush, different than Washington. She achieved that strategy. They both did fine, didn’t change the race.

JIM LEHRER: Didn’t change the race, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: No, didn’t change the race, Jim. I think she saved her career, in this sense, that there will be no more conversation or speculation about whether the ticket ought to be changed or any of the sort.

I do think, with the decision announced that she will not do any other interviews, that it really means that she’s…

JIM LEHRER: That’s been modified slightly. Late today, they said that she may do a lot more interviews.

MARK SHIELDS: Oh, OK, well…

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, it just — it limits her utility and value. I mean, you want your presidential and vice presidential candidates to be able to go on free media interviews to get their message out.

I think, based upon her performance last night, which I think certainly relieved an awful lot of Republicans, that her concentration will be in red states.

Obama takes the lead

David Brooks
New York Times Columnist
If you look at a lot of the other battleground states, he's not doing much better in Pennsylvania, even Ohio, tightening up in Florida. So there's a whole tide, and it's a tide against McCain. He's thrown a lot of long Hail Mary passes.

JIM LEHRER: And so let's talk about the race. Where does it stand now? The Palin-Biden debate is over. So where are we?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it's matured, where people know who the two main candidates are. Obama, I'd say, has a 7-point lead, which is a significant lead. It's very hard to see how that's going to change, frankly.

It could change in the last couple of weeks. Something can happen, but the fundamentals were always powerfully in favor of the Democrats. We have an economic crisis, which makes that even more powerful.

I have always thought people would move in the last two weeks. My model for this election has always been 1980, where people want to vote for change, they need something to say, "It's OK, it's OK," and in the last two weeks they would make that call.

They seem to have made it earlier. And so Obama has opened up a wide lead. As Judy reported, McCain is out of Michigan. He's not going to campaign heavily there.

If you look at a lot of the other battleground states, he's not doing much better in Pennsylvania, even Ohio, tightening up in Florida. So there's a whole tide, and it's a tide against McCain. He's thrown a lot of long Hail Mary passes. Some of them have paid off; some haven't. It's hard to see what else he does.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, what is your reading on Michigan? Michigan -- that was considered, in the last 24 hours, amidst everything else, a big deal, when the decision was made to pull out, the McCain campaign essentially out of Michigan. Explain why that's so big.

MARK SHIELDS: Republicans thought that Michigan was their best chance to take a state away that John Kerry had carried and Al Gore had carried, for the following reasons. They have a Democratic governor of Michigan, Jennifer Granholm, who has great national appeal. She's quite unpopular in the state itself. The state has had great economic problems. They had a spectacular...

JIM LEHRER: It has the highest unemployment rate of any state in the union.

MARK SHIELDS: ... 8.9 percent, that's right, before today. It also had a spectacularly, egregiously, outrageous mayor, African-American mayor of Detroit, Kwame Kilpatrick, who refused to leave office. And it was the home of Reagan Democrats in Macomb County.

So they really thought there was a shot there. Plus, it's got some small-town values and hunters that they thought would have an appeal, that McCain and Palin would have an appeal to, rather than Biden and Obama.

And David's right. That change is significant, in the sense that it narrows the playing field for John McCain. I just went through the states, Jim. If you take Colorado, Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio, Florida, Nevada, Iowa, New Mexico, Montana, all states where Obama is seriously challenging, in many he's leading at this point in polls, every one of them is a red state.

JIM LEHRER: Red meaning?

MARK SHIELDS: It's a state that George W. Bush carried.

JIM LEHRER: Carried it.

MARK SHIELDS: And the only states where he is competing or challenging right now -- I'll throw in Montana, as well, to that list -- is Pennsylvania, New Hampshire -- which has four electoral votes -- Wisconsin, Minnesota. They say now they're going to go into Maine.

But, I mean, you know, it's a narrow playing field, but there are several scenarios by which Obama can get to 270 at this point. There's only one, probably, that McCain has to -- he's drawing to an inside straight. And the only other thing I'd add to it...

JIM LEHRER: That's a poker expression.

MARK SHIELDS: It is a poker exchange, for those of you who don't play poker. But he's sitting there with four cards that don't add up, and he needs one to make a straight, and they aren't of the same suit, so that's his only hope, is to get one of the three nines in the -- or one of the four nines in the deck.

Shortcomings of the GOP

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
I mean, we've had changes, upheavals. We have a Congress that doesn't want to vote on anything in the last six months before an election go in this week and, groaning, you know, $700 billion for a bailout of Wall Street.

MARK SHIELDS: I'd just add that one thing. This race is far from over. I mean, five weeks ago, OK, just take -- we've got five weeks to go, basically -- no one had heard of Sarah Palin, all right? She's now a major national figure.

Five weeks ago, Lehman Brothers was a respected American institution. Wachovia was my bank. It doesn't exist anymore. We've had...

JIM LEHRER: I thought Paul Solman laid it out...

DAVID BROOKS: I'm going to give him a loan right now.

MARK SHIELDS: AIG, the world's biggest insurance company -- I mean, we've had changes, upheavals. We have a Congress that doesn't want to vote on anything in the last six months before an election go in this week and, groaning, you know, $700 billion for a bailout of Wall Street.

So, I mean, to say that there aren't twists and turns remaining in this election, I think we're kidding ourselves.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I agree with that. And especially this year, one would not say that we're going to have a straight line. This has been non-linearity to the max.

Nonetheless, I do think there are fundamentals. It's very hard to win the party -- to win the presidency three terms in a row, for any party, no matter what the terms. The economy is what it is. These are pretty strong.

And then one thing -- Mark mentioned small-town values when talking about Michigan. You know, I think Sarah Palin did very fine last night by her own standards, but this has become -- the Republican Party has become a small-town party, running against -- as Sarah Palin did last night -- against big cities, against the East Coast, to some extent, against newspaper readers.

I understand why they're doing it, running against Washington. This is the way Republicans do populism. But in the long run, it's poisonous and self-destructive. You cannot be a majority party in this country if the coasts don't like you and people who read newspapers don't like you.

And they have narrowed themselves. And I thought McCain was going to be a chance to reach out beyond the traditional red, rural America. And he's not taking that up. And with Sarah Palin, short-term gain last night, but long-term turning people off.

McCain's media tactics

David Brooks
New York Times Columnist
We learned early on, if we don't attack Obama, we do not get on the news. And, therefore, we had to attack Obama. We had to run this kind of campaign. That's -- that would be essentially be their argument.

JIM LEHRER: Let me ask you this. You are plugged in as a reporter to the McCain campaign, all the things that you just said and Mark just said, are they saying that internally? And if so, what Hail Maries, if any, are they thinking about or even open to?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I haven't -- they haven't told me about the Hail Maries to come.

JIM LEHRER: OK, right.

DAVID BROOKS: I do know they're realistic. I mean, they're professionals. They know what they're doing. And I do know they have a sense this has been thrust upon them, that the kind of campaign they wanted to run they were not allowed to run.

And they would blame the media -- with some justice, but not total justice -- and that they feel that they've been thrust to run a campaign they didn't want to run.

Their model of the campaign was the poverty tour McCain took early in the race, where he went through the southeast, mostly, in Appalachia and other places, and ran as a new kind of Republican. And as they would say is, we got zero stories on the network news out of that.

We learned early on, if we don't attack Obama, we do not get on the news. And, therefore, we had to attack Obama. We had to run this kind of campaign. That's -- that would be essentially be their argument.

JIM LEHRER: And you think there will be more of that, if that's -- if that's all they have left, that's what will continue?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, the question is whether McCain will do that. I mean, I thought McCain did a very brave thing for a desperate candidate in not opposing the bailout, because that would have been, in the short term, politically a popular thing to do.

But then the question is, do you go back to Jeremiah Wright? Do you go back to a lot of that stuff? I'm not sure what they're going to do about that.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think, Jim, that...

JIM LEHRER: You also have sources within the campaign.

MARK SHIELDS: I do. I do. And the Republicans I've talked to this week feel that David's rationalization, which they've advanced about, "We weren't getting covered," put it differently.

They said John McCain of 2000 was the only chance of 2008. That is, a John McCain who opposed tax cuts, a John McCain who really did roll the dice and stand out differently and had to distance himself from George W. Bush, which he didn't do.

McCain, Obama 'come back'

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
John McCain stood up and tried hard with the Republican House caucus. He didn't make a lot of headway, but he didn't take the easy way out, which was the no vote.

MARK SHIELDS: One thing on the debate I think we should mention, Joe Biden probably made a better case for Barack Obama on the economy and on the Democrats' position on the economy than Barack Obama did at University of Mississippi last week. I don't think there's any question about it.

And he did -- I think that people wanted to know about these things, the tactics -- we saw in Judy's piece, when Sarah Palin came on the stage and said, "Great to meet you. Can I call you Joe? And you can call me Sarah."

And he resisted that bait, because if he had called her Sarah, he would have immediately been accused of being dismissive and disparaging her. By her saying, "Can I call you Joe?" she laid the predicate to say the line we heard later, "Say it ain't so, Joe."

So, I mean, Joe Biden showed some discipline, more discipline than I think a lot of people give him credit for.

John McCain's best chance at this point is the format at Nashville, in the town meeting.

JIM LEHRER: The Tuesday debate.

MARK SHIELDS: He went to victory in 2000 in New Hampshire. He salvaged, he redeemed his campaign in 2008 with no money. He does them well. And the question is whether, in fact, he can shine in that. I mean, I think that's -- I think that's the best format he's got coming up.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, in some ways, though, he couldn't have run that campaign -- as much as we all loved that campaign- - he could relax and say whatever he wanted...

JIM LEHRER: You mean the 2000? Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: The 2000 campaign. Now, because of technology -- technology is supposed to create transparency. It does the exact opposite. There's cameras everywhere. There's phone cameras everywhere. There is no off-the-record moment.

Every bad thing he might say is right on YouTube immediately or blogged about. It just is a poisonous atmosphere for that kind of campaign. You cannot run that campaign anymore, I think mostly because of technology.

And so he was hemmed in. He's been less happy. And then fundamentally, there's one issue I don't think he settled in his own mind. He loves Barry Goldwater, very libertarian style of conservatism. He loves Teddy Roosevelt, more progressive style. He's never reconciled these two worldviews.

So when it comes to the financial crisis, he doesn't know whether government's the enemy or government's the friend. And so he's in between.

JIM LEHRER: And that's the financial crisis, do either one of them get any points for this or is it kind of a wash?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I think they both -- I think they both do get points for coming back. I mean, you heard in Kwame's piece, Jesse Jackson, Jr., the Congressional Black Caucus had voted against it overwhelmingly last Monday. They turned around, and a number of them -- Barbara Lee, Jesse Jackson, Jr., John Lewis, Elijah Cummings, Donna Edwards -- they said that they were doing so because Obama had asked them to do so.

John McCain stood up and tried hard with the Republican House caucus. He didn't make a lot of headway, but he didn't take the easy way out, which was the no vote.

JIM LEHRER: OK, thank you all very much.