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Democrats Stump for Support Before Wisconsin Vote

February 18, 2008 at 6:20 PM EDT
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Democratic presidential candidates Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton -- still locked in a battle for delegates -- are jockeying for voter support before Tuesday's Wisconsin primary. Two journalists discuss the state of the race in the Badger State.

RAY SUAREZ: Next, the latest on the presidential campaigns. Tomorrow brings a Democratic caucus in Hawaii and GOP and Democratic primaries in Wisconsin. Judy Woodruff has our story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Republican John McCain made a special trip to Houston today to pick up the endorsement of a former president, George Herbert Walker Bush. It was one more step on the way to solidifying his lead in the race for the nomination.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: And I believe that his endorsement and sign of support honors me, and I also think it’s very helpful in continuing our effort to unite our party.

In the conversations I’ve had with President Bush, he made it very clear that we as a party must unite and move forward and attract not only members of our own party, but independents and the so-called Reagan Democrats.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Asked about the attacks on McCain’s conservative credentials, the former president dismissed them as absurd.

GEORGE H.W. BUSH, Former President of the United States: If you’ve been around the track, you hear these criticisms, and I think they’re grossly unfair.

He’s got a record that everybody can analyze in the Senate, a sound conservative record, and yet he’s not above reaching out to the other side. So I hear these criticisms. And Barbara knows I get a little bit annoyed about them, frankly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mr. Bush also lauded McCain’s character and readiness to lead.

GEORGE H.W. BUSH: His character was forged in the crucible of war. His commitment to America is beyond any doubt. But most importantly, he has the right values and experience to guide our nation forward at this historic moment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: After the short visit to Texas, McCain moved onto Wisconsin, where both parties have primaries scheduled tomorrow.

Except for an overnight trip to the Cayman Islands for a speech, McCain’s opponent, Mike Huckabee, spent the last few days in the Badger State.

FORMER GOV. MIKE HUCKABEE (R), Arkansas: I’d like to think that we’ve got enough support in Wisconsin that we could actually win here. I mean, it would be a very big thing for us.

I think it would also be big for Wisconsin for me to win, because it would show that the party was wrong to say this is over and that it would be also wrong to end the game before people in places like Wisconsin have had a chance to vote.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Campaigning this morning outside of Green Bay, Democrat Hillary Clinton argued that she has offered detailed solutions to problems where Barack Obama has not.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), New York: I want you to know what I will do as your president. So, as you can tell, I give very specific ideas about what I want to do. I answer your questions as specifically as I can, because I think there’s a big difference between speeches and solutions.

And I think it’s important that we hold our president and our presidential candidates accountable. So when I put out something like this, an economic blueprint, I really want you to hold me accountable.

And, obviously, I hope you will think about that when you vote tomorrow, because I’m a proven commodity. I’ve been making change for people for 35 years. You know that I will go to work for you and make those changes happen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Before he headed back to Wisconsin, Obama rallied supporters in Youngstown, Ohio, where nominating contests will be held on March 4th. He countered Clinton, saying her attacks send the wrong message to voters.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: I’ve really been enjoying this argument. It says, “Well, Obama can talk good, he is inspiring, but — but he doesn’t have enough specifics. You know, it’s all talk. He’s not a doer; he’s a talker.”

You’ve been hearing this argument a lot lately. But there’s something more cynical about this. The notion is that if we have somehow gotten people excited again about politics, that there’s something suspicious about that.

You know, if you’ve got a political candidate that people actually believe in, then there’s something suspicious about that.

You know, they are trying to feed you with a cynicism that says, “You should just go back to sitting on the couch and complaining about how bad politics is, instead of coming out to rallies like this one and getting involved to bring about change in America.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: Before the Youngstown rally, Obama fielded questions from reporters and acknowledged he should have credited Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, a friend and supporter of his, for lines Obama used in a weekend speech.

Hawaii and its 29 delegates are also up for grabs tomorrow on the Democratic side.

Profiling the Democratic electorate

JUDY WOODRUFF: For a closer look at what's in stake in tomorrow's Wisconsin primaries, we turn to Craig Gilbert, Washington bureau chief for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He joins us from Milwaukee. And Dan Balz, veteran political reporter at the Washington Post, he was in Wisconsin over the weekend, and he joins us now from the Post newsroom.

Gentlemen, thank you both.

Craig, the Democratic race first. Who are these Democrats, Democratic and independent voters who are expected to go to the polls? Give us a sense of some of the political lay of the land in Wisconsin.

CRAIG GILBERT, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Well, Wisconsin is a 50-50, you know, extreme battleground state in the fall. The key thing about the primary is that it's an open primary, so there's lots of independents. So probably 30 percent, 40 percent, 45 percent of the Democratic primary electorate will be non-Democrats.

And it's also a very big electorate. Turnouts are really, really high here. So it's a pretty diverse electorate. The African-American population is about less than 10 percent of the vote. You have a lot of blue-collar workers, potentially a big campus vote, and a lot of rural Democrats.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dan, what would you add to that? And, also, what about what's on the minds of these voters as they go to the polls tomorrow?

DAN BALZ, Washington Post: Well, I think the voters in Wisconsin are the same as we've seen in other states in the past month or so, and that is that the economy is a very big concern. I think that's always been the case in Wisconsin.

We've seen that in general elections over the past two cycles, that Wisconsin is a state that's been hit over the years with loss of manufacturing jobs and that there's, as Craig said, a sizable blue-collar workforce there. And I think that's the main element on their minds.

I would say that, for some, Iraq and national security is certainly an issue. The liberal Democrats will take that into consideration.

And I also think, as we're seeing and hearing from the candidates, that the issue of electability is important. Which one of these candidates will be the stronger general election candidate in a state that, as Craig said, has been a 50-50, you know, eyelash state in the 2000 and 2004 elections?

Exchanging attack ads

JUDY WOODRUFF: Craig, we're seeing some of the first really seriously negative television spots in the state of Wisconsin airing. And we're also seeing the Clinton campaign pointing out over the weekend that Barack Obama used some lines in a speech on Saturday night that were virtually identical to what his friend and supporter, Deval Patrick, the governor of Massachusetts had used some months ago.

What's the overall effect of all this?

CRAIG GILBERT: You know, it's really hard to say what this last story, the Deval Patrick story, what kind of impact that's going to have because it's so fresh. I mean, it's probably safe to say it's not as big a story in Wisconsin, in Milwaukee and Green Bay, as it is in Washington and on the cable stations.

But the thing to keep in mind about the television is that it's been very fierce, which is a real departure from what we've seen in earlier states. But Barack Obama has had a real, major spending advantage in this state. He's outspending Senator Clinton three or four to one.

So you've got this kind of weird thing where even though Senator Clinton initiated the exchange of negative ads, people are probably seeing more of the response ads from Obama than they are seeing the ads that Hillary Clinton has run.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dan, what's your take on this negative back-and-forth?

DAN BALZ: Well, I think it's a harbinger of what we're going to see over the next few weeks. Given what happened to Senator Clinton over the last 10 days, in which Senator Obama has been on a pretty impressive winning streak, they needed to do something to try to put this campaign back in the direction that they thought they could win. And so going after him in Wisconsin was the way to do that.

As Craig said, the Obama campaign has had a significant financial advantage. And until we see differently, we'll assume that that's going to be the case over the next few weeks.

But there are big primaries coming up after this in two weeks, Texas and Ohio. And I think what we're seeing in Wisconsin is the opening stage of what will be an even fiercer battle for those states.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And given that, Craig, how important is Wisconsin to these campaigns?

CRAIG GILBERT: Well, I think it's, a, important because of the delegate battle; b, it's important in terms of momentum. But, as Dan said, there's sort of a Wisconsin campaign going on here, but there's also an Ohio campaign going on here and a national campaign going on here.

And I think they're -- at a tactical level, you're seeing them do things with an eye toward Ohio. And also, on a thematic level, you're seeing them really hitting those issues of jobs and trade and manufacturing.

It's kind of a showcase in some ways for the Ohio campaign, which is, in some ways, similar to Wisconsin demographically. It's an open primary. And, obviously, you have a lot of working-class areas that have been really hard hit in this economy.

Hedging expectations

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dan, does one of these Democrats need a win in Wisconsin more than the other one?

DAN BALZ: Well, I mean, you obviously say Senator Clinton needs a win because it's been a while since she's won one. It was announced last week that she had won New Mexico, but, of course, that took place on February 5th. So she's been shut out since then. She needs something to turn this around.

On the other hand, I think because Senator Obama was seen coming out of the Potomac primaries in our region last week as a likely winner and perhaps a big winner in Wisconsin, if she were to win that, I think it would be even more significant than it might have been a few weeks ago.

So, clearly, she needs a victory. We will see what happens. The expectation has been that Obama will win it, but she has certainly fought hard down the stretch and has spent more time in Wisconsin, ironically, in the last 36 hours of the campaign than he will have spent.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Craig, how do you see the race right now? I mean, looking at the polls, any other measurements that you have access to?

CRAIG GILBERT: Well, this should be a pretty level playing field. And if Senator Clinton comes close but falls just short, people will second-guess them for not coming here sooner -- instead of coming here Tuesday, like Senator Obama, she came here on Saturday -- and not spending more money, not making more of an effort.

But they always seem sort of reluctant to go all-out here for fear of kind of raising the stakes and then falling short and paying that particular price. So it's been kind of a funny balance they've tried to strike here.

On the other hand, you know, if they pull off a surprise because they've been sort of lowering their expectations so much all along, then it would be a very big deal for Senator Clinton.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It's a delicate balancing act there.

Dan, your sense, you were in and out -- you were in Wisconsin or managed to get out despite the storms. Is the weather going to have some effect tomorrow?

DAN BALZ: Well, it's supposed to be quite cold tomorrow. I would think that may have some dampening effect on turnout. But, Judy, we've seen, particularly in these Democratic primaries and caucuses, continued record turnout. And I would expect we are likely to see the same in Wisconsin tomorrow.

Lingering Republican contests

JUDY WOODRUFF: Craig, finally, let's talk about the Republicans. There is a Republican contest. John McCain, Mike Huckabee is still on the ballot, Ron Paul. How do you read that right now?

CRAIG GILBERT: Well, it shouldn't be a great state for Mike Huckabee because independents can vote, and that should be good for John McCain. It's a northern state. There's not a lot of Evangelicals here.

But that base Republican electorate is a pretty conservative one. And to the extent that independents are drawn to the Democratic race in this open primary, that's taking votes away from John McCain.

There hasn't been a lot of polling, but the polling we've seen has suggested a tightening race on the Republican side. So there's kind of that Huckabee kind of irritation factor for John McCain that he has to deal with here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dan, any additional word on the Republicans?

DAN BALZ: No. I would think that the way Craig laid it out is quite accurate, that this is a state that isn't particularly good for Huckabee.

I also think that the McCain campaign certainly is more and more moving its attention to the general election. He was in Houston, as you know, for the endorsement of former President Bush.

I think that the McCain campaign is just trying to keep the victories coming, but do not take seriously at this point the threat that Huckabee poses.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, it's the Wisconsin primary, it's tomorrow. Thank you, Dan Balz. Thank you, Craig Gilbert. We appreciate it.

DAN BALZ: Thanks, Judy.