Hopefuls Wrangle over Terrorism, War

Is Sen. Hillary Clinton's remark that a terrorist attack would give Republicans an advantage in the next election the first real gaffe of her White House bid? How will candidates handle the upcoming Petraeus report on Iraq?

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

John Edwards and other Democratic hopefuls have been criticizing Hillary Clinton for her comment last week that a terrorist attack would give Republicans an advantage in the next election and that she was the candidate who could most successfully counter that advantage.

Joining us now for some analysis is NPR's Cokie Roberts.

Good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So Hillary Clinton's comment was called tasteless by one of her Democratic rivals and worse by a couple of others. Had she committed her first real gaffe of the campaign?

ROBERTS: Well, if so, it's an awfully small one, I think. She - look, she basically spoke vicious truths. The fact is that the Democrats have suffered when there's a terrorist attack and Republicans have benefited from it. And so her saying that that's the case and that she's the most experienced one and the person most able to counter that is probably an accurate statement, but also probably not a very wise one because it did give her opponents the opportunity to say that she shouldn't concede the issue of terrorism to the Republicans. And they've jumped all over it.

But truthfully, I think it's because they're very frustrated. These guys just can't knock her out of this very substantial lead that she just holds onto no matter what in poll after poll. And she's held onto it by making absolutely no mistakes.

So that's why this particular moment is something that they have latched on to. And also she's been winning debates. She's been showing a lot of humor. She'll go on "The David Letterman Show" this week and do that some more. So I think that what you've got is the - her opponents just trying to look for ways to get at her. And we'll see if they're able to succeed.

MONTAGNE: Turning now to the war in Iraq, widespread disagreement within the political parties about what to do there, just as Congress prepares to hear from General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker. How are Democrats and Republicans likely to receive that report?

ROBERTS: Well, it's interesting. The Iraqi prime minister is also taking on Senator Clinton and Senator Levin of Michigan, saying that they should come to their senses. He's responding to their call for him step down. And actually, Renee, the one place where everybody seems to agree at the moment, both parties and inside the parties, is that the Iraq government is a, quote, "disaster," in the words of Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell. But after that, it does seem to fall apart.

A lot of members of Congress have gone to Iraq over this congressional recess. Key Republican Senator John Warner has come home saying that some troops should come out of Iraq by Christmas, if for no other reason, symbolically, to show the Iraq government we're not going to stay there forever. But then you have a Democrat Brian Baird saying, well, those demands for withdrawal seem to be making it harder for the Iraqi government to come together.

The president has gone on the offensive, giving a speech last week to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, this week to the American Legion. He's got ads out, or his allies do, saying don't withdraw.

So I think that the bottom line is, is that the Democrats will not have the votes for a change in policy that they thought maybe by now the bottom would have dropped out and they'd get some Republicans or more Republicans to come along with them. But that doesn't look likely.

MONTAGNE: Just briefly, over the weekend the Democratic Party tried to wrest control of the presidential primary calendar back from some states. What's that all about?

ROBERTS: Well, the Democrats were telling Florida, a state that's wanting to move up its presidential primary yet earlier in January, that they will take away Florida's convention delegates if they do that.

Look, there is no real threat here. The convention doesn't mean anything. If Florida's choice is to have an influence on the process early versus go to the convention, which is not likely to be the choice, that they will go for the early process. It shows you how weak the parties are, essentially. And it could be the beginning of the end of the political conventions.

MONTAGNE: Cokie, thanks very much. NPR News analyst Cokie Roberts.

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