TOPICS > Politics

Campaign Stretch Run

October 17, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: The election is just 19 days away. We get perspectives on this final stretch from three veteran political reporters: David Broder of the “Washington Post,” Ron Brownstein of the “Los Angeles Times,” and Elizabeth Arnold of National Public Radio. Ron, starting with you, how did the comments you just heard jibe with your own assessments of the debate?

RONALD BROWNSTEIN, Los Angeles Times: I thought it was a terrific group. I found myself agreeing with almost everything I heard. I think the audience in San Diego equated themselves very well. I thought this was a much better debate than the town hall debate in ’92 which got kind of fuzzy and esoteric. But I also very much agree with the man who said that, you know, it was a couple of pros up there, uh, last night. On the one hand, that was good. I thought they were both very skillful, very effective, and quite cogent, even for Bob Dole who can wander off into insider speak at times. On the other hand, because they were so skillful, they were able to sort of glide around some of the more naughty issues and sort of twist them back to their own sound bites on questions like entitlement reform, or health care; as a listener, I would have felt they were being maddeningly vague.

MARGARET WARNER: Elizabeth, do you agree?

ELIZABETH ARNOLD, National Public Radio: Well, first I want to ask Ron if he really wants debates to go on for several weeks at a time. (laughing) I mean, I don’t think the debate dramatically altered the shape of the race, and a lot of people sort of saw what they thought that they would see because Sen. Dole really let everyone know that he was going tough, and it certainly has put to rest the whole issue of whether or not he’s going to get tough Nobody was saying that to him out in Riverside when he continued the broad side. I think it has changed the tone of the race, though. Sen. Dole took a deep breath last night before he launched into it. Today he exhaled and just sort of relaxed and had some fun with some of these attacks.

MARGARET WARNER: David, tell me–give me your assessment of this debate.

DAVID BRODER, Washington Post: (San Diego) Well, I agree that the audience did a very good job, and Jim Lehrer had done a good job of asking the questions. But I do think we’ve run into a rather sterile formula here, or at least one as one of the folks in Denver said that the politicians have learned almost too well how to gain. The 90 second, 60 second, 30 second thing is almost too easy for them. They like it because it protects them. They like it because it protects them. Almost any professional politician can sound reasonably coherent in that time frame. What you really want at some point is to say, well, let’s take another look at this because you haven’t really dealt with this aspect of it or that aspect of it. If we could stay on a subject for a little bit of time, I think people would get a better gauge of how much these candidates know and what they’re really willing to do.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Ron, where do the campaigns go from here, the last 19 days?

MR. BROWNSTEIN: Well, if you look at where they literally go from here, it’s quite revealing. In the next few days, Bob Dole is going to be going to, among other places, New Hampshire and Virginia, and Bill Clinton is going to be going to Alabama and Florida. And that tells you that this late in the game Bob Dole is still trying to nail down his base, and Bill Clinton is still feeling very aggressive about making forays into Republican territory. I mean, Dole has a problem. There is no easy path for him to get to 270 electoral votes at this point, and they’re scrambling around, trying to find a strategy to get there. You know, they earlier put a lot of time and money into states like New Jersey and Pennsylvania, $650,000 into New York City Television into one week alone. Now they’re saying they’re going to drastically cut back on those states and shift to California.

MARGARET WARNER: David, is this–has the gap really closed in California, as one poll out there shows, and do you think it’s competitive?

MR. BRODER: This is a very big state that I’m in.

MARGARET WARNER: I know, but you’re there, so I figured–

MR. BRODER: I’m not going to try to tell you how much that it’s shifted in California, but I think the Dole people have made a very rational decision in saying we ought to take a real shot at winning California. It’s not more difficult to win California than it is to win Ohio or Michigan or Illinois. And the payoff is much larger. Secondly, as one of–a consultant out here pointed out to me this–today–you do have Ralph Nader on the ballot here, and you do have Ross Perot in a state where he really–the Reform Party really does have some structure in organization. So just for those because of the presence of those two candidates, the literal gap may be a little bit smaller for Sen. Dole here.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Elizabeth, what kind of a pick was Dole making today? Tell us a little bit more about sort of the tone and thrust of his appearances in California.

MS. ARNOLD: Well, it was actually a smorgasbord of all kinds of things from railing against campaign contributions and a campaign fund-raiser that the vice president attended at a Buddhist Temple, where he ate vegetables, from that to the FBI files. It reminded me a lot of President Bush in 1992, just a whole grab bag of all kinds of things, but he clearly was enjoying himself. On the issue of California, I was trying to come up with what it is that they’re doing and they’ve just been so outmaneuvered and sort of outspent and just outfoxed on the electoral map, that it’s sort of like this game of checkers where you’ve been triple jumped and you suddenly don’t know where to go and California is a big square left, and they’re unveiling two new ads here tomorrow, and as Ron pointed out, they’re diverting some resources from places like New Jersey to really make a push here.

MARGARET WARNER: And what do they have to do to really make a big push?

MR. BROWNSTEIN: Well, California is, I agree with David, it makes sense to sort of put your eggs in one basket in the sense that you’re behind at least as much in places like Michigan and New Jersey. Now why not focus on one place at the tune of a million and a half dollars a week, which is what they’re promising. To win California is going to be very hard. I mean, they seem to be moving back into the model that worked for Pete Wilson in 1994, trying to polarize around racially tinged issues like illegal immigration. affirmative action, which he has gone through this weird, on-again, off-again cycle of downplaying for months, but coming back to at points and came back to very hard today. So I think they’re hoping to emulate that sort of Wilsonesque strategy of moving, sort of polarizing the race on ideological terms after Clinton has tried so hard to throw a blanket over ideological distinctions all over the country for suburban voters.

MARGARET WARNER: So, David, does that mean they’re shifting away from the strategy of trying to find those independent soccer moms that we’ve been hearing all about this whole campaign season?

MR. BRODER: No. I think soccer moms in this area still care a lot about immigration and so it’s not an either/or proposition .I think what happened last night actually helped Sen. Dole a bit, particularly his closing statement, to bring back that Republican base. But you can’t win elections with your base vote in California or most other competitive states. You’ve got to get to those more independent-minded voters like the folks we were listening to from the Denver focus group.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Elizabeth, do the Dole people think they’re in danger of losing people, such as we just heard in Denver, if they do start playing abortion and affirmative action and, and anti-immigration themes very heavily?

MS. ARNOLD: Obviously they first have to shore up their base, and as Ron was just saying, with issues like illegal immigration, in fact, one of those ads tomorrow is going to be about that very issue, um, and as David points out, though, you can’t just, um, give people reasons to vote against President Clinton. You have to give reasons for them to vote for you, and this strategy right now sort of doesn’t–it’s a little too late. The kinds of speeches that he was making in Riverside today are the kinds of speeches that you should have had a few months ago, and now you begin to go positive. That’s the risk.

MARGARET WARNER: And so–how are the Clinton people now do you think strategizing for the final 19 days? I mean, you mentioned that they’re going after Republican states, but–

MR. BROWNSTEIN: Clinton last night violated what had been his own prime directive from 1992, which was never let an attack go unanswered, but he did not really respond directly to the ethical attacks all night. Today, however, they put on a new television ad that has James Brady, the former Secretary, a former press secretary for Ronald Reagan, who was shot of course in 1981, saying you measure President Clinton’s character by what he’s done. He fought to pass the Brady Bill, so they’re trying to respond that way. I think they want to stay on the high road and focus these two things that he really emphasized last night–things are better than they were four years ago and try to remember what Newt Gingrich tried to do to you, uh, last fall. That’s what they think are their–sort of their ace in the holes, and those are the ones that are going to play hard I think the rest of the way.

MARGARET WARNER: And, David, do you think this–these ethical attacks could reach some sort of a crescendo? I mean, what does history tell us about ethical issues this late in a campaign?

MR. BRODER: Well, in 1972, the Democrats were trying to make Watergate an issue in the closing weeks of the campaign as the outlines of that crime began to become apparent did not phase Mr. Nixon at all in his drive for reelection, so I think it’s going to be difficult. But one point that the consultant made to me today struck me as interesting. By focusing on the trust issue, Republicans, not just Dole and Kemp, but Republicans down the line can he said be of great help to Republican congressional candidates, and at first I didn’t get the connection. He said if you establish in people’s minds that there is some reason not to trust President Clinton, then you don’t want him and his party to have all of the power in Washington, it becomes an additional reason to vote Republican for Congress.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you’re saying that may be–was this a Dole strategist, or you say this may be a conscious strategy?

MR. BRODER: It was a Republican strategist. I don’t think I’m allowed under the rules to go much further than that.

MARGARET WARNER: Elizabeth, is this what you’re hearing from the Dole people? (no audio) I think we’re having–I’m sorry, Elizabeth, we’re having a little audio problems, so let me go back to Ron.

MR. BROWNSTEIN: You know, what you’re seeing here in the final days from Dole is somewhat analogous to what we saw from Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis toward the end, very one-sided campaigns in those years, which is you go back to the base and you talk to the base. They went to economic populism. He went to a much more ideological presentation and trust, both of which I think resonate most powerfully with the Republican-leaning voters, and as one consultant said to me, a Republican consultant, not a Dole strategist, said to me yesterday, you may be seeing what is–what is a campaign now designed more to avoid losing than to sort of maximize the chance of winning. And as David suggested, to help Republican candidates by ginning up Republican turnout, by exciting the Republican case.

MARGARET WARNER: Great. Ron, thank you. David and Elizabeth, thanks very much.