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McCain Takes on Obama as Candidates Push Toward Texas, Ohio

February 20, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
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Barack Obama campaigned Wednesday as the Democratic front runner after victories in Wisconsin and Hawaii -- and ran into new criticism from his rival, Hillary Clinton, and from top Republican candidate John McCain, who said the Illinois senator waffled on accepting public funds. Analysts look at what's ahead in Ohio and Texas.

JIM LEHRER: Looking toward Ohio and Texas. Kwame Holman tracks today’s campaign action.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: Thank you guys. Thank you. Thank you. Well, you all do it big in Texas.

JIM LEHRER: Barack Obama campaigned this afternoon in Dallas, Texas, a day after extending his primary and caucus win streak to 10.

Obama defeated Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin yesterday by 17 percentage points. The margin was even wider in Hawaii — Obama’s birthplace — where he dominated the Democratic caucus with 76 percent of the vote.

Obama told the Dallas crowd that his candidacy offered voters a distinct choice not only from Mrs. Clinton, but also from John McCain, the likely Republican nominee.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: You know, today Senator Clinton told us that there is a choice in this race. And, you know, I couldn’t agree with her more.

But contrary to what she’s been saying, it’s not a choice between speeches and solutions. It’s a choice between a politics that offers more of the same divisions and distractions that didn’t work in South Carolina and didn’t work in Wisconsin and will not work in Texas.

Or a new politics of common sense, of common purpose, of shared sacrifices, shared prosperity. It’s a choice between having a debate with John McCain about who has the most experience in Washington or having a debate about who’s most likely to change Washington, because that’s the debate we can win.

KWAME HOLMAN: Obama picked up another endorsement today, this one from the Teamsters union, his fourth from organized labor in a week.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton rallied supporters and raised some money, as well, this morning at New York’s Hunter College. She, too, drew contrasts between herself, her Democratic rival, and the presumptive Republican nominee.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), New York: So there are big differences in this election between me and Senator Obama and between me and Senator McCain, whether we favor speeches or solutions to move our country forward or more of the same, old Republican policies. This is a debate that the voters deserve to have.

KWAME HOLMAN: Clinton also told the crowd she wasn’t discouraged about the lengthening string of defeats.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: My campaign is about an America of shared opportunity, shared prosperity, and shared responsibility. I do believe we’re all in this together.

And we’re going to demonstrate loudly and clearly that our country is worth fighting for, our country is worth standing up for, and this campaign goes on, and this campaign moves forward, and this campaign, with your help, will take our country back. Thank you all, and God bless you.

KWAME HOLMAN: With victories in Wisconsin and Washington state, John McCain moved that much closer to wrapping up the Republican nomination for president.

McCain took 55 percent of the vote in Wisconsin in his win over Mike Huckabee. His Washington state victory was larger, winning with a 27-point margin.

During a news conference this morning in Columbus, Ohio, McCain raised a foreign policy issue, criticizing Barack Obama for saying last summer he would attack Al Qaida targets if found inside Pakistan.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: The best idea is to not broadcast what you’re going to do. That’s naive.

The first thing that you do is you make your plans and you carry out your operations as necessary for America’s national security interest. You don’t broadcast that you are going to bomb a country that is a sovereign nation and that you are dependent on the goodwill of the people of that country to help you in the war, in the struggle against Taliban and the sanctuaries which they hold.

KWAME HOLMAN: And during his victory address last night, McCain dismissed Obama’s campaign for change as nothing more than hollow rhetoric.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: I will fight every moment of every day in this campaign to make sure Americans are not deceived by an eloquent, but empty call for change that…

It’s no more than an eloquent, but empty call for change that promises no more than a holiday from history and a return to the false promises and failed policies of a tired philosophy that trusts in government more than the people.

KWAME HOLMAN: Mike Huckabee was in Little Rock, Arkansas, last night, vowing to stay in the hunt for the Republican nomination despite seemingly insurmountable odds.

FORMER GOV. MIKE HUCKABEE (R), Arkansas: Some have even suggested that the reason I keep going is maybe just there’s some ego trip. Let me assure you that, if it were ego, my ego doesn’t enjoy getting these kind of evenings where we don’t win the primary elections.

So it’s got to be something other than that, and it is. It’s about convictions. It’s about principles that I dearly, dearly believe in.

It’s about believing that the message of pro-life, standing firm and unflinchingly for a human life amendment, is an important discussion that we must have in our Republican Party.

KWAME HOLMAN: Huckabee and McCain have no other debates scheduled, while Hillary Clinton will debate Barack Obama tomorrow night in Texas and again next Tuesday in Ohio.

Obama eats into Clinton's base

Amy Walter
The National Journal
He went into that sort of lunch-bucket Democratic base that she had held so strongly. And it suggests that we might -- we're at this tipping point where voters have made this decision to cross over from their safe place that they had been before.

JIM LEHRER: And on to what the Wisconsin results, among other things, may say about what lies ahead in Ohio and Texas.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor and publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report. Amy Walter is editor-in-chief of the Hotline, National Journal's political daily.

Amy, first of all, on the Democrats, was there any single major message that came from the Obama victory in Wisconsin?

AMY WALTER, The National Journal: Yes, there was. And it's that, "I got into your base, Hillary Clinton."

That was the message, is that for so long -- remember, all these nights that we've spent together talking about primary election nights, we kept -- Stu and I have been saying the same thing, which is these candidates couldn't break out of their base vote. They could never peel away the other person's vote.

And Barack Obama did that in a big way yesterday. He tied her among women. Obviously, that was somewhere where she'd done very well. He did much better and beat her among people who made less than $50,000 a year, people who did not have a college degree.

He went into that sort of lunch-bucket Democratic base that she had held so strongly. And it suggests that we might -- we're at this tipping point where voters have made this decision to cross over from their safe place that they had been before.

JIM LEHRER: Does the data reflect any reason for this as to why people or what the people are doing, as Amy said?

STUART ROTHENBERG, Rothenberg Political Report: No, there's no apparent reason. We can read into it. But Amy is exactly right.

When you look at union households, when you look at different kinds of voters, I think voters, Democrats, are simply finding Barack Obama more appealing at this point, more likable, more -- he's stirring something in them. You have to...

Campaigning on personality

Stuart Rothenberg
The Rothenberg Report
Some of these Democrats are just learning who Barack Obama is. They're seeing more of him, listening to him, and so they're responding to him. I don't think their opinion of her has changed; I think their opinion of his has changed.

JIM LEHRER: Rather than message? Rather than, "Hey, I'm for this, I'm for Obama instead of Hillary Clinton because of his position on this or her position on this"?

STUART ROTHENBERG: What I hear is his comments are big thoughts. They're about changing things; they're about changing politics.

And I think people are responding to that, but they're really responding to him personally. This is a personality campaign at the moment, Jim.

AMY WALTER: It's not a policy campaign.

JIM LEHRER: It's not a policy campaign?


JIM LEHRER: So take that. Let's say it's a personality campaign, going to Ohio, Ohio has been -- it's said, "Oh, well, it's very similar to Wisconsin." Make the case.

AMY WALTER: Right. Well, what's interesting is, even though there aren't policy differences, they both are trying to emphasize the economy, the sort of populist rhetoric that John Edwards had made the centerpiece of his campaign we're seeing from both of these candidates.

But I think Stu is exactly right, which is -- voters, first of all, they're not picking Barack Obama because they don't like Hillary Clinton. She still has strong approval ratings. They just like him better.

And they do see that the momentum is becoming significant, that he has held up now very well on the trail. That's usually what happens to these inspirational candidates, that they don't necessarily wear well. But after a year on the trail, he looks stronger now than he did even a couple of months ago.

STUART ROTHENBERG: I think the difference is people have known Hillary Clinton for many years. They've had a strong impression of her. They've liked her. They've been unsure, but they know her.

Some of these Democrats are just learning who Barack Obama is. They're seeing more of him, listening to him, and so they're responding to him. I don't think their opinion of her has changed; I think their opinion of his has changed.

JIM LEHRER: So do you see anything from what happened in Wisconsin that you could overlay Ohio and/or Texas?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, I tend to think, Jim, that we're watching a dynamic. When Maryland and Virginia, those results came in, I thought, "Well, it's Washington, D.C. It's the nation's capital. People are a little strange in Washington. You know, maybe they don't represent the country as a whole."

But now we've seen this in Wisconsin. And I'm starting to think that this is something that is rippling through the Democratic Party, that it's not just one state here or there. It doesn't have to do with the particular demographics of a particular state, but we're seeing some significant changes in the party.

Now, we won't know, obviously, for another couple weeks, but that could be what we're seeing.

Clinton stuck in a 'box'

Amy Walter
The National Journal
They were saying, "I want to look around. I do. I know her. There are things maybe, maybe not, but let's see what else is out there." And what they found out there was Obama, and they've been able to capture that.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree that the demographics don't reflect anything other than what you're saying, it's a personal thing?

AMY WALTER: That it's a personal thing based on -- and I think Stu is right, that when we saw the very first polls -- when did we start polling, 2006, from the presidential...

JIM LEHRER: It seems like a long time ago.

AMY WALTER: It's been a long time. Hillary Clinton, the question always was, even against people that nobody knew very well, she was never able to get 50 percent of the vote. She was always the best-known, defined candidate.

And, again, it wasn't because voters were saying, "Well, I don't like her so I want an alternative." They were saying, "I want to look around. I do. I know her. There are things maybe, maybe not, but let's see what else is out there."

And what they found out there was Obama, and they've been able to capture that. The Obama campaign has been able to capture that.

And now you're seeing sort of the old guard get on board, too, when you have labor unions, like SEIU, now the Teamsters. These are also, in many cases, people or organizations that actually asked the opinions of the people in their union.

It wasn't from the leadership on down; it was from the real union members, which suggested it's more grassroots than it is simply Washington deciding to push this.

JIM LEHRER: On Texas specifically, much has been said in the last few weeks, "Oh, well, Texas is going to be different for Hillary Clinton because of the Latino vote." Is there any data on that going in?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, we have the California numbers, which show that Senator Clinton did extremely well among Latinos, Hispanic voters.

Texas, actually, Latinos are not as important in Texas as they are in California. Maybe that would surprise people who assume that that's a big constituency in Texas.

We have seen statewide polling on the Democratic side in Texas that suggests the race is very close. And if Latinos were voting the way they did in California, the statewide numbers I think would not be as close as they are.

So that leads us to wonder whether or not Senator Clinton is running as well among them as she did in California.

JIM LEHRER: If both of you are right -- and this has now become a personal thing -- do attacks on Obama, which have picked up not only from Hillary Clinton, but from John McCain, and clearly they're going to get worse before this thing is over on March the 4th, are they likely -- is there any way to measure what impact they might have?

AMY WALTER: No, it's a very good question. I think, for Clinton, she's in somewhat of a box, right, because she has been so defined. And I think Obama has done a good job of also creating this image of anything that you do that smacks of old politics, running contrast ads or attack ads, that's the same, old politics of the same, old Hillary Clinton.

So in many ways, she has a tougher time trying to define him because it just reminds voters of those things that they don't want to vote for, i.e., what was in the past.

Obama unscathed by attacks

Stuart Rothenberg
The Rothenberg Report
I think the Clinton campaign is throwing stuff and seeing if anything sticks on the wall. This is, I think, an effort to rattle Obama more than anything else.

JIM LEHRER: There were two specific things that came up right before Wisconsin. One is this, the use of Deval Patrick's words in an Obama speech and then the attack about whether or not he would take federal funding, matching funds in the general election. Was there any cause-and-effect there?

STUART ROTHENBERG: You know what I think is happening here -- I think the Clinton campaign is throwing stuff and seeing if anything sticks on the wall. This is, I think, an effort to rattle Obama more than anything else.

This argument over who borrowed whose words, most of the stuff was boilerplate politics. You know, everybody says certain phrases. And, you know, maybe he got too close to Deval Patrick's language.

But I think this is an attempt to try to rattle him, because that is still the big question. You know, under the microscope, how does he perform? How does he perform when it really gets intense and there's pressure? Will he make a mistake? So far, I don't think he has.

And the other charge, of course, is this question about experience. This seems to be going nowhere. I mean, I thought it would go somewhere; I thought it would work in Iowa, frankly. But Senator Clinton continues to use that. And there's no evidence it's...

JIM LEHRER: What do you think, Amy?

AMY WALTER: You know, what's also interesting is to look at where Obama's strength is among independent voters. And, yes, in Wisconsin, he was able to break into her base, too, but Hillary Clinton's credibility factor among independents is very, very low.

So these attacks that she's making on Obama certainly aren't going to move those sort of independent-leaning voters who already don't see her as a credible messenger.

I don't know if McCain, who comes in with much higher positives among independents, who's seen in a different light than Hillary Clinton, will be able to be a more effective messenger, whether it's making these specific claims about experience or plagiarism.

The one thing I did notice is he went out in Columbus -- we showed this clip -- where he wants to talk about Pakistan and decision-making. Voters in this country want to talk about the economy.

And I think that the attempt to try to keep moving back onto his safe space -- terrorism, security, experience -- when voters are really nervous about the direction of the country and the direction of the economy just may not get any traction.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Yes, I think that's a problem. Look, John McCain begins, in terms of favorability factors, pretty good. His numbers are very similar to Obama's, so people do like him.

But on the stump, when he's trying to freelance, he's just not as agile as Barack Obama is, in terms of language or ability to deal with issues. And I think that's a problem.

He's going to have to take the fight to the Democrats. He's going to have to overcome his party label and the problems that Republicans have, as the party is seen. And so he has to walk this fine line of not being too negative, but forcing the Democrats to get specifics and forcing the Democrats to stumble.

JIM LEHRER: OK, thank you both very much.

AMY WALTER: Thank you.