Political Chat: Oprah Raises Cash for Obama

In this week's forum, Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. John Edwards, finishes his "poverty tour" and media mogul Oprah Winfrey announces a swank fundraiser for Sen. Barack Obama. Pollster Ron Lester and political blogger Faye Anderson talk about political campaigns.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead, we pay tribute to a poet and a crusading newsman. We'll also visit the righteous soul summer of 1967, and the Barbershop guys tell us who let the dogs out.

But first, it's Friday, let's talk politics. This week, Democratic hopeful John Edwards finished his weeklong road trip to draw attention to poverty in America. He landed in Prestonburg, Kentucky.

Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Former Democratic Senator, Virginia): I think for everybody who lives in poverty or in the shadows of poverty or in fear of being in poverty, I want them to hear my voice and I want them to hear your voice. And what I want them to know is we see you, we hear you, we are with you, and we will not forget you.

(Soundbite of applause)

MARTIN: While Barack Obama made what some considered a counter move at an event in a rec center in the nation's capital. Also in the news, Oprah officially joins the Obama bandwagon. She sent out invitations for a big-ticket Barack Obama fundraiser. And Republican contender John McCain fights for his political life. And an all-nighter at the U.S. capital went bust.

Joining us now to talk about all of these is Faye Anderson. She is a political commentator and a blogger. She joins us from NPR's New York Bureau. And Democratic pollster Ron Lester is also with us. He joins us on the phone from Bermuda.

Welcome, everybody. Thanks for speaking with us.

Mr. RON LESTER (Democratic Pollster): You're welcome.

Ms. FAYE ANDERSON (Political Commentator): Thanks for having me again.

MARTIN: Faye, let's start with you. John Edwards put a lot into this poverty tour and some think that he took a risk. He opened the door to a scrutiny of his own lifestyle, which is very pleasant, calling him a Robert Kennedy-wannabe and all that. What do you think of it? Do you think this poverty tour was a good idea, bad idea? Could it help break him out of his perpetual third-place spot?

Ms. ANDERSON: Well, I don't think he took much of a risk. When you're stuck in third, you don't have anywhere to go. Well, I guess you could go down. But no. Whether it will help him, that remains to be seen. You know, Michel, poor people have heard this before, that every election cycle a candidate comes, whether it's a state local or national office, and says I'm here, I feel your pain and I'm going to make all kinds of promises. And they never hear from them again.

MARTIN: Well, wait. Faye, let me stop you at that, because would argue with that. Some people would argue that most campaigns nowadays are about the middle class and part of the issue is that nobody really talking about poverty per se.

Ms. ANDERSON: Well, that's the point, why I don't think that his poverty tool will really resonate with voters. Because middle-class voters are in pain themselves. It's hard to feel someone else's pain when you're hurting, when you're worried about your own bottom line, about how you're going to pay your house loan, your college bills, your health care that - remember, President Bush stood in Jackson Square after Katrina and talked about poverty in America, and we're going to do whatever it takes to ameliorate poverty. And we haven't heard anything from him since.

MARTIN: Ron Lester, what do you think?

Mr. LESTER: Well, I think it's a great idea. I think the poverty tour is a great idea. I think the issues of income equality, underemployment, unemployment, the issue of jobs going overseas and outsourcing is a major issue.

If you take a look at the Democratic electorate, about 25 to 35 percent of our households would fall into the lower income range. So I think Edwards has hit on something. I think he's finding traction out there and that voters are finding the methods that he's delivering compelling.

He spoke about two Americas in 2002, found a lot of traction. He ended up becoming the vice president. It certainly is an argument that has legs and that's working for him.

MARTIN: Barack Obama made what some interpreted as a jab at Edwards when he had his own event in Washington, D.C. And he said - he was invoking his roots as an activist in Chicago. He said poverty was more than just a device for his campaign. You know, Ron, how do you interpret that? Could you make it an argument that perhaps Edwards did make some inroads because another candidate who is ahead of him had to respond?

Mr. LESTER: Well, clearly, there are some things going on here with Edwards and Obama. And while Edwards has placed a great deal of emphasis on the poverty tour, Obama has strong roots in the community grassroots movement. So he felt compelled to come out and do an event in Anacostia in southeast Washington and address some of the same issues.

So I think this discussion, raising these issues and talking about the problems, the unique kinds of problems that low-income people face in America, and where we're going to go in terms of the federal government addressing those problems in terms of employment and training policies, in terms of outsourcing, in terms of minimum wage, in terms of health care benefits, I think to the extent that Senator Obama decided to address these issues it's a good thing for the country, it's a good thing for the democratic process.

MARTIN: I think we should spend a little bit more time on Barack Obama, because there's a lot of news around his campaign (unintelligible).

First, I want to talk about this Oprah fundraiser. It's just unusual for her to - you know, she's had political figures on her show before. I mean, she had, you know, Al Gore, she's had Hillary Clinton, she had George W. Bush when he was running the first time. But I don't remember her ever giving a big-ticket, you know, high-gloss event, you know, like this for anybody. Do you, Ron? And do you think that this matters? I mean…

Mr. LESTER: Historically, her position in Chicago is not to endorse candidates. She has had candidates who she has contributed to financially before. But Oprah has not publicly endorsed candidates for many reasons. She's a talk-show host and has a lot of credibility and conflict of interest issues and a whole host of other issues.

So the fact that she has publicly decided to come out for - first of all, she's been with Barack for a long time. And some people attribute part of Barack getting into the race being somewhat connected to his strong encouragement from Oprah going back a year ago.

So this is nothing new, although she's decided to make it public or the campaign has decided to make it public. They're doing a fundraiser in Santa Barbara, and they'll raise a lot of money but…

MARTIN: I don't know what happened to my invitation. Not that I have, you know, $2,400. Faye, are you invited?

Ms. ANDERSON: No, (unintelligible).

MARTIN: No? Ron, are you invited?

Mr. LESTER: No, I'm not.

MARTIN: I don't have $2,400.

Ms. ANDERSON: Michel, don't give 2,400. You'll get in trouble.

MARTIN: True.

Ms. ANDERSON: The limit is $2,300.

MARTIN: Twenty three. I'm sorry. Well I'm a - I don't give money to candidates anyway. I'm not crazy. Ron?

Mr. LESTER: Yeah. But I think the issue here is - it's great they're going to raise a lot of money, but they raised a ton of money - will this help broaden his appeal among working-class voters?

For example, in South Carolina, a poll was done by Mason-Dixon in June that had Senator Obama out in front of Senator Clinton, 36 percent to 24 percent. And I think Edwards had about 18. But among blacks, who represent 50 percent of the vote there, Senator Obama had 41, Hillary had 18 and John Edwards had 12.

So Senator Obama still needs to grow his support among working-class voters and black voters. There's a lot of room for improvement, and he's going to have to address some of these issues that affect working-class people like jobs, like the growing HIV problem among younger African-American women, like the impact of the subprime mortgage debacle on minorities. He's going to have to address those issues more clearly, more succinctly, more directly to grow. So does Oprah's support help him with those voters? I'm not sure that it does.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm talking with Democratic pollster Ron Lester and blogger and political commentator Faye Anderson about the week's political news.

Faye Anderson, what do you think about the Obamarama? And I'm also wondering whether - what's the news around the statistics that Ron just cited about the Obama support among African-Americans? I mean, what - I'm always sort of questioning whether we should be - is there an assumption that African-Americans are just supposed to support him because he's black or - I'm just sort of arguing with myself here. Is the news that Hillary is doing as well as she is or that Obama's not doing better, or is it just the normal flux of the primary? What do you think, Faye?

Ms. ANDERSON: Well, an AP-Ipsos poll released this week shows that Clinton still leads the - Senator Clinton still leads Barack Obama among African-American voters. A Zogby poll shows the same thing.

So the question is, after almost a year of rock star treatment by the mainstream media, why is Obama still stuck on in second place among voters and among black voters as well? In today's New York Times - just to finish up with Oprah - in today's New York Times, there is a poll on women's attitudes. And regardless of how women feel about whom they're supporting, they think that Senator Clinton is likely to get the nomination and then go on to win the general election. So it remains to be seen whether Oprah will be able to help Obama with women. He needs help with women as well as with black voters.

MARTIN: Okay. Faye, spend a minute on Senator McCain for a minute. He's a, he was just - you know, he was considered to have so many advantages and so -also, you know, a candidate very much liked by the press, also the Republican that most Democrats like the most. And yet he's got so little money that he had to let a lot of people go. Can he pull it out? Is there any scenario in which you see him being able to pull this out?

Ms. ANDERSON: Stick a fork in McCain. I have to - what McCain promised after he lost his label as the independent McCain of 2004 - 2002, what McCain promised was that he was the heir-apparent. He would continue the Bush legacy. Americans do not want a third Bush term. They (unintelligible) Bush, they want Bush gone, and so they're not likely to embrace a candidate who promises more of George W. Bush.

MARTIN: Ron, but speaking of - I think, obviously, a big part of the problem, as Faye's talking about, is the continued - McCain's strong support for the war in Iraq, which most Americans don't support. And so I wanted to - in our final minute, I wanted Ron, you to talk about the fact that that sort of all-nighter that the Democrats tried to pull off in the Senate, that all-night debate. Why do you think it is that polls show 70 percent of the American people want the troops out of Iraq but somehow the Democrats cannot translate that into political victories on Capitol, they cannot translate that into policy? Why do you think that is?

Mr. LESTER: Well, I don't think it's an issue of the Democrats not translating it into victory. I think that the all-nighter was a great idea. I think that the issue was raised. There was a debate that was generated. People are talking about it. We're talking about it here now. Thousands of people are listening. I think that there are just not enough senators at this point who want to vote to pull out because they don't want to leave the troops there and don't want to abandon the troops.

I think that there are some other issues here. I think we'll have a discussion soon, maybe in the fall, certainly in the spring about some kind of phased withdrawal. But I think this is going to have to be done aggressively. I think hats off to Senator Reid for wanting to initiate the pullout right now. There is certainly a lot of strong support. But you need 60 votes. And I think it's going to take some time to make the argument to the American people and to get the American people to that point.

MARTIN: My question is why can't it get 60 votes when 70 percent of the people agree with the Democratic position, Ron?

Mr. LESTER: Yeah, well, the public opinion is clearly on the side of pulling out, but there is still - there's lot of support for the troops. What happens to the troops? How does the phase withdrawal work? What happens in Iraq after we're gone? There are a lot of other questions here that the senators are going to have to answer to their constituents. So, you're right, Michel, there is strong support for pulling out. And I think, as I said earlier, there will be some kind of phased withdrawal in the fall or in the spring.

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. LESTER: But I think it's going to have to go slow.

MARTIN: Okay. All right. We're going to have to leave it there. Faye, we'll have to hear from you next week on this question. We were joined by Democratic pollster Ron Lester. He joined us on the phone from Bermuda. We're also joined by Faye Anderson, political commentator, author of the blog andersonatlarge.com. Thanks everybody.

Mr. LESTER: Thank you.

Ms. ANDERSON: Thank you.

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