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What the Democrats need to do in the PBS debate in Milwaukee

February 11, 2016 at 6:50 PM EDT
While Republican presidential hopefuls made tracks around South Carolina, the Democratic candidates prepared to meet for the debate hosted by PBS in Milwaukee. Political director Lisa Desjardins offers a rundown of Thursday’s campaigning, and Hari Sreenivasan previews the debate with Lisa, Tamara Keith of NPR and Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Milwaukee is the center of the Democratic political universe tonight. The candidates meet for a PBS NewsHour presidential debate, and how they perform on stage could influence the next key contests.

Our political director, Lisa Desjardins, is in Milwaukee.

LISA DESJARDINS: That’s right.

“NewsHour” staff is finishing up the rehearsals on our debate stage for what is expected to be a powerful and maybe even pivotal debate between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, but the Democrats do not have a monopoly on intensity. And, today, Republicans were also fighting for votes in their next primary state, South Carolina.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), Republican Presidential Candidate: This is our youngest, Dominick.

Say hello, Dominick.


LISA DESJARDINS: All across the Palmetto State, the hopefuls are making tracks, and taking their best shots.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush marked his 63rd birthday by stumping with South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and going after front-runner Donald Trump.

FORMER GOV. JEB BUSH, Republican Presidential Candidate: Do you want an entertainer-in-chief, someone who will say whatever he wants to make it all about him, insult people, divide people, basically just talk trash on his way to the Republican nomination? Or do you want someone who has been tested? Because, if you do, I’m your man.

LISA DESJARDINS: Bush’s fellow Floridian, Senator Marco Rubio, took a different line of attack today, near Hilton Head.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: Donald Trump has zero foreign policy experience. Negotiating a hotel deal in another country is not foreign policy experience.


SEN. MARCO RUBIO: Jeb Bush has no foreign experience, period.

LISA DESJARDINS: Rubio said he’s ready for a long slog to the party’s nomination and even a brokered Republican Convention this summer, likewise Ohio Governor John Kasich, who placed second in New Hampshire. He told CNN last night he doesn’t expect to win in South Carolina. But he said today he means to keep campaigning.

GOV. JOHN KASICH (R-OH), Republican Presidential Candidate: We are going to do our best here. I’m a scrappy guy. And we are going to move all across the country.

LISA DESJARDINS: Meanwhile, Trump talked of sweeping away his opponents at a campaign stop in Clemson last night.

DONALD TRUMP (R), Republican Presidential Candidate: We win here, we’re going to run the table. If we win here, after winning so big in New Hampshire, all of these characters are going to give it up.

LISA DESJARDINS: On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders sized up the state of the race on CBS’ “Late Show With Stephen Colbert” last night.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (VT-I), Democratic Presidential Candidate: I think a lot of Donald Trump supporters are angry. People have a right to be angry. But what we need to be is rational in figuring out how we address the problems, and not just simply scapegoating minorities.

LISA DESJARDINS: Rival Hillary Clinton hopes to draw on her strength with minorities. She picked up a key endorsement today from the Congressional Black Caucus PAC.

REP. CEDRIC RICHMOND (D), Louisiana: Our brains and our intelligence tells us what our conscience confirms, that the best person to be the next president of the United States is Hillary Rodham Clinton.

LISA DESJARDINS: Georgia Congressman and civil rights veteran John Lewis went further, questioning Sanders’ claim that he worked for racial justice in the 1960s.

REP. JOHN LEWIS (D), Georgia: I never saw him. I never met him.

I was involved in the sit-ins, the Freedom Ride, the March on Washington, the march from Selma to Montgomery and directed the Voter Education Project for six years.

But I met Hillary Clinton. I met President Clinton.

LISA DESJARDINS: Both Clinton and Sanders largely stayed out of sight today, as they prepped for tonight’s debate here in Milwaukee.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Lisa joins us now, along with Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report and Tamara Keith of NPR, from the site of tonight’s debate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Lisa, I want to start with you. How close is this race heading into tonight’s debate?

LISA DESJARDINS: It is a real horse race. It is not the race we thought it was three or four months ago.

Bernie Sanders has momentum, so I don’t want to say that there’s really a front-runner at this point. Hillary Clinton has more of what are called superdelegates. I know you like to talk about that, Amy. But Bernie’s got momentum. So, we have a real race. I don’t think — I don’t want to say there is a front-runner right now.

AMY WALTER, The Cook Political Report: We have had a obviously very contested contest in Iowa that Hillary narrowly won. Bernie came out of New Hampshire, big, big win.

The real question now, we head to Nevada and South Carolina, which are demographically very different, stylistically very different. This is what Hillary Clinton has always thought was going to be her so-called firewall, because it’s a much more diverse state, not quite as liberal as those other two.

That’s why she needs to have a strong debate tonight going into what we will soon see in Nevada and South Carolina.

TAMARA KEITH, NPR: Absolutely.

And, today, you can tell how important these voters are, because — and how the landscape has shifted, because Bernie Sanders was announcing an endorsement from Harry Belafonte. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton has a number of members of the Congressional Black Caucus holding a press conference singing her praises. This has definitely shifted to the next states, where the electorate…

LISA DESJARDINS: The non-white vote is more important.

TAMARA KEITH: Yes, where the electorate reflects the Democratic Party as a whole.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, let me get to that question.

Tamara, I want to start with you. So, who do they need to appeal to through this debate and beyond?

TAMARA KEITH: It’s not — it’s all of the Democratic electorate, and I think Hillary Clinton especially has work to do, at least based on the exit polls that we saw from New Hampshire.

She lost — she lost women. She lost young people.

LISA DESJARDINS: Almost every age group.

AMY WALTER: Basically, everybody.

TAMARA KEITH: Everybody, except people earning more than $200,000 a year.

And so she really needs to come out on this debate stage, and, as she said Tuesday night, she has work to do. She needs to do that work and needs to present herself as more than a resume and a pile of white papers.

AMY WALTER: You know, young people are something that she is definitely going to need to do much better with.

She was losing not just by the margins she lost to Obama, which were big, but by 70 — 70, 80 points. That is really unprecedented. Her challenge, I think, is a little bit like a parent at Christmas, when you have to admit that there is no Santa Claus, but still keep the magic of the holiday.

LISA DESJARDINS: Wait. There is no Santa Claus?

AMY WALTER: I’m sorry that I ruined it for you.


LISA DESJARDINS: I will talk to you afterwards.

AMY WALTER: But that’s what she’s confronting right now with younger people, who are — who do want to be inspired, who see Bernie Sanders as aspirational.

She’s trying to say, yes, but let’s try to figure out how we get things done. How do you do that in a way that doesn’t undermine the real energy that the younger voters have?

LISA DESJARDINS: The pragmatic vision that she has, Hari, is not something that young people are looking for. They’re looking for big vision.

But one small grain of hope, I think, that I saw out of New Hampshire — I don’t know if you guys saw this — in the exit polls, she did win with people who decided that day at the polls, just by a little bit. So that might give her the idea that standing on this stage tonight, Hari, maybe she can turn around some people who are on the fence who are still deciding. That’s what she’s counting on.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Amy, I want to ask — start with you. What are you looking for from each of the candidates tonight?

AMY WALTER: From Hillary Clinton’s perspective, it is this balance of Santa Claus and spirit of the holiday that I was discussing. But it’s also pressing Bernie Sanders on specifics.

He has been able to talk about this big, inspirational, aspirational message, without getting nailed down on how that’s actually going to work. How can she get him to specify those things? And also looking for her to really hone in on her message.

I went back and I looked at all the Hillary Clinton ads that have been run since the summer, and it’s kind of a mishmash. There’s a little bit of everything here. You have some guns. You have some pay equity. You have talk about work she did with children and women.

What is her message? We know what Bernie Sanders’ message is. It’s all about the economy being rigged and Wall Street is not on your side. Where is Hillary Clinton going to find that message?

TAMARA KEITH: And I think, for Bernie Sanders, it’s really about, can he get beyond the talking points, beyond the slogans, and can he, you know, dig in on foreign policy, beyond saying, I voted against the Iraq War, I have got the judgment?

On the — on health care, on some of these other things, can he really get into the weeds with it? And I think Hillary Clinton is going to try to press him to do that.

LISA DESJARDINS: And, Hari, I think our viewers should know that, in organizing this debate, I know the thing that Gwen and Judy really care about the most is, they want to try and show the differences between these two candidates.

They’re similar in a lot of ways, but they are really hoping to focus on issues and substance tonight and drill down on, what kind of a different president would each of them make? So, we will see.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Lisa Desjardins, our political director, Amy Walter from the Cook Political Report, and Tamara Keith from NPR, thanks so much.