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Obama, Clinton Square Off; McCain on Defense

: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, our weekly visit with the barbershop guys. We'll get their take on the latest political stories, and the Oscars, and the good book, Manga style. We'll talk with the author and illustrator. But first, as the presidential nomination race grinds on we'll talk about the latest in the campaign but also about what the future might hold for the Congress and any other folks running for election this fall. Are there overall trends affecting everybody on the ballot? Joining me in the studio is Jennifer Duffy, Senior Editor and Political Analyst for the Cook Political Report, it's a non partisan publication that analyzes electoral politics. Jennifer thanks so much for braving in the elements to get here.

JENNIFER DUFFY: No problem. Thanks for having me.

: Before we dig into last night's debates, let's talk about some broader trends for a minutes. The so-called Potomac Primaries were held last week and in Maryland two incumbents Republican wing, Gilchrist and Democrat Al Winn, both lost their seats. Now incumbents don't lose very often. Your publication said in June of 2007 that some believe, a problematic volatility has been created for all incumbents and that voters could be receptive to insurgent candidates of either party or no party in 2008. Do you think that's what we saw in Maryland?

DUFFY: Well, not really. I mean you look at two incumbents who had been, long been targets since Congressman Al Winn almost lost in the primary in 2006. And his opponent Donna Edwards, never stopped running. She just kept going. Then she got the backing of some of the Democratic party's more liberal groups and she was able to close the deal this time. You know, Gilchrist sort of had the opposite problem. It was Republican who were after him. And you had you know, sort of the anti-tax groups like the Club for Growth got into the race on behalf of Andy Harris who beat Gilchrist. I think those are two very specific circumstances with very vulnerable incumbents that said, part of the reason they lost was the higher turnout because of the interest in the presidential election.

So you had a lot of people who weren't as familiar with the incumbents coming out to vote. You know, that's the kind of volatility we may see in November and that's what by and large incumbents should worry about. And I do think it's incumbents of both parties.

: Well how are Americans feeling in general about their, their candidates, about their politicians, about their political institutions?

DUFFY: You know, Americans aren't too happy with the United States Congress these days. I know the Democratic leadership likes to poke fun at President Bush and his approval rating. But their approval rating is 18 percent. When your approval...

: Eighteen percent.

DUFFY: It's 18 percent according..

: One eight.

DUFFY: One eight as according to the last NBC news Wall Street Journal poll. And that means if your approval rating is that low, it means that Democrats are very unhappy with the Democratic leadership, Republicans are very unhappy with the Republicans for different reasons. I saw another number recently that only 39 percent thought that their own member of Congress should be reelected. That is, that is very low. You know, I think voters really want the Congress to sit down and stop fighting with each other and get some things done and they are worried about a whole range of issues. I mean Iraq isn't on the front burner anymore but it's still a big concern for voters.

Right now it's the economy and everything the economy symbolizes, health care, jobs, education, just people's personal security. So voters are not very happy right now.

: Does the unhappiness with both the president and the Congress trickle down as it were to other races on the ballot?

DUFFY: We could see it. We saw a little bit of that in 2006 where in states where you saw member of Congress lose, you also saw Republicans lose in big numbers in state legislatures. Now the presidential race is different and we need nominees and we need this race to start playing itself out. But it certainly could have an impact on ballot and it tends to impact races for the house a little bit more than races for the senate but it's certainly felt there as well.

: If you're just joining us, I'm talking with Jennifer Duffy. She is Senior Editor and Political Analyst for the Cook Political Report. So let's talk about the race for president. Senators Clinton and Barack Obama faced off last night in Texas for another Democratic debate. I think it was assumed that Senator Clinton would have to make a move to break the momentum of the Obama campaign. He's had a very big string of victory. She won New Mexico by a squeaker, but other than that it's been all Obama all the time. Assumption was she'd go negative. Here's an exchange I think that's getting sort of most of the attention this morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

BARACK OBAMA: I have a notion that I had plagiarize from somebody who is one of my national co-chairs, who gave me the line, and suggested that I use it, I think is silly.

Unidentified Female: Senator Clinton is it the silly season?

HILARY CLINTON: You know, lifting whole passages from someone else's speeches is not change you can believe in, it's change you can Xerox. And I just don't think...

OBAMA: Well, that's not what happened.

CLINTON: Oh, but you know, Barack, it is.

: And what you can't hear here is that she was booed by this. It was a very enthusiastic audience there of people on you know, - there were supporters on both sides who were very sort of enthusiastic. But that was the line of the neck that really got kind of the biggest kind of negative reaction. So Jennifer what do you - first of all what do you think she was doing strategically and do you think it might work?

DUFFY: You know, I don't think it is work - it's going to work. It's a fairly funny line but it got booed. The problem with Clinton's sort of strategic attacks lately, is that they've backfired because they feed into Obama's message that she is just a typical politician playing partisan, the partisan politics of the past. So every time she sort of dings him on issues like plagiarism or you know, when she talks about his campaign it's just about words, I think it's more irritating to voters because it proves his point.

I think where Clinton did score some big points last night, was in her closing remarks, which is, you know, I think that made a lot more sense for her to state her case at the end of the debate and to do it very, very strongly.

: We are surprised though at the tone. I mean I think, I mean obviously this is a very subjective thing but I think a lot of people were really expecting kind of fire and brimstone last night and I don't think that that's what happened.

DUFFY: Well you know, it's funny. They've tried fire and brimstone and it hasn't worked well for either of them. And it has especially backfired on Clinton. So it didn't surprise me that she did not come out as anything but very polite. You know, this is a cautious candidate. There's only a certain amount of risks she is going to sort of take and that's what you saw tonight.

: She's damned if you do and damned if you don't.

DUFFY: She is a little bit at this point and part of that is you know, losing ten in a row and that's kind of weighing on her. So she is a little bit damned if she does and damned if she doesn't. But I just don't think that - I think that they've decided that to come out and be overly aggressive is a loser for her.

: But both Senator Clinton and Senator McCain have been making an issue out of Senator Obama's refusal to accept public financing in the general election. Senator Clinton is claiming that's a flip flop. Is this a potential vulnerability for Senator Obama or this the kind of thing that the public really just doesn't care about?

DUFFY: I don't think the public cares that much, I really don't. And McCain you know, he's trying to get out of the public financing system for the primary right now. The FEC told him yesterday that they have a little bit more work to do before they could do that. So I'm not sure that he's actually arguing this from a strong point and I don't think voters take seriously, an argument from a woman who just put $5 million of her own money into a campaign. These...

: And who's husband has benefited from some relationship with these head front managers which is a very controversial - got a big payout recently.

DUFFY: That's right. I mean I - but I think again it gets to the basic point that voters don't want to talk about process. They don't want to talk about how you raise your money and whose words you're using. They want to talk about issues and they are not getting enough of that I don't think from either side of the isle right now.

: But speaking about process, let's talk about that New York Times story about John McCain and his close relationship with telecommunications lobbyist Vickie Iseman. She had clients with business issues before the committee that McCain chaired in the Senate, a big sort of kerfuffle over this yesterday. What do you think, Jennifer? First of all, do you think it's a fair story? And second of all, do you think there's any traction to it?

DUFFY: You know, I thought it was sort of a thin story, just in terms of, one, you know, really proving her relationship to him, how much time did they spend together and what exactly did she get out of it. I don't think they came close to doing anything other than insinuating a possible romantic relationship. So I think it's going to go away. It's actually done something good for McCain, believe it or not, in that I think it...

: What? Tell.

DUFFY: I think yesterday might have been the first day since McCain, you know, came back from his last summer slump that, you know, Rush Limbaugh didn't tear him apart. Instead, he teared the New York - tore the New York Times apart.

: It's the kind of thing where I can talk about my family but you can't talk about my family.

DUFFY: Well, exactly, and apparently it's spurned some internet giving to his campaign. You know, there's nothing the conservative sort of elite like more than to hate the media. So that actually worked to his benefit. I don't know that this has a lot of traction. I think that if there was other things to come out, we would heard it yesterday and we haven't heard anything.

: I think we should just spend just one minute on Mike Huckabee. He's the former Arkansas governor. Mike Huckabee is still supposed to be in this race. I'm not sure. Is he - is it mathematically possible for him to win the nomination at this point?

DUFFY: No, it's really not. I mean he'd need delegates to defect from McCain, and I think that yesterday sort of gave him a little bit of false hope, the story yesterday and what it is. He was at the Alamo yesterday. That might have been appropriate. But you know, Huckabee has run a good race on very little money. He wasn't even on anybody's radar screen much before last fall. But it is hard now and if he was out to show Senator McCain and the party leadership that McCain still has problems with conservatives, that he could help him there and help him in the South, perhaps on the ticket, then I think he's proven that point and he's getting on the way to damaging himself and his own credibility, after running what was really a pretty honorable race.

: How long do you think he stays in?

DUFFY: I - if he doesn't pull off some upsets on the 4th, I think he's out. I think he's done.

: Jennifer Duffy, senior editor and political analyst for the Cook Political Report and intrepid traveler in a Washington ice storm. Thank you so much for joining us.

DUFFY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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