Presidential Contenders Firm Their Positions

Though the presidential election is more than a year away candidates are solidifying their positions. Polls show Hillary Clinton with a strong lead on the Democratic side while Republican Rudy Giuliani may be losing support.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Americans have been sentenced to a maximum of 13 more months of the presidential election. And though nobody has voted yet plenty of candidates are getting in position.

Once again, this morning, we've called our political brain thrust. Ken Rudin is NPR's political editor.

Ken, good morning once again.

KEN RUDIN: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Thanks for coming in. And Mara Liasson is NPR's national political correspondent. Good morning to you.

MARA LIASSON: Good morning to you.

INSKEEP: Given that nobody has actually voted, how far ahead is Hillary Clinton really on the Democratic side?

LIASSON: Well, she is ahead in the only measurements that we've got at this point, which is money, polls and endorsements. She is maintaining her lead and even expanding it in national polls and in some of the early state polls like New Hampshire and Florida and California; that's still not true in Iowa. She did win the money race this quarter. This is the first time that she's beat Barack Obama in money raised by about $3 million.

She got a new set of endorsements - Ron Dellums, the African-American mayor of Oakland. She also got the endorsement of the American Federation of Teachers, a very important constituency and activist group inside the Democratic Party. And she's even looking good in some of these head-to-head match-ups, these hypothetical polls. You know, if she was running against Rudy Giuliani who would you vote for?

So her campaign has been working very, very hard to create this aura of inevitability around her nomination. And that matters because…

INSKEEP: Can I just ask…

LIASSON: …creates a kind of psychological momentum.

INSKEEP: Although, can I ask is there anything that makes her seem stronger than Howard Dean or any number of other past candidates who seemed inevitable at this point and turned out to have nothing when the voting starts?

LIASSON: Yes, I think it does. I don't think you can compare her to Howard Dean. She is a major figure in the party. She's got Bill Clinton working for her. Howard Dean was a phenomenon. Hillary Clinton is an establishment candidate. She's different in that respect.

INSKEEP: Well, let's try to find out who the phenomenon is, if anyone, on the Republican side. Ken Rudin, is the Republican field still unsettled?

RUDIN: Well, if you look at the national polls, you'll see that Rudy Giuliani is leading in the national polls and, of course, number two is Fred Thompson and he's been completely untested. He appears on a debate Tuesday for the first time. We'll see if there's a real Fred Thompson to him.

But there are a lot of many social conservatives who are very upset with the prospect of a Rudy Giuliani nomination. The fact that he's pro-abortion rights, pro-gun rights - I don't know how pro-gun control - pro-stem cells, pro-gay rights things like that. And many have hinted that if Giuliani gets the nomination, they will either bolt the party, sit home, or even back a third-party candidate, which could prove death for the Republican nomination, and (unintelligible).

INSKEEP: Giuliani's…

LIASSON: You know, that was the story on Rudy at the beginning of the week, but at the end of the week he was defying gravity, defying the kind of gravity that those social conservative concerns are supposed to present for him. He ended the week by winning the race for money, rose - raised more than Romney. He also has all but a race - Romney's lead in a New Hampshire poll. And that comes at a time when Rudy Giuliani has spent no money on television ads in New Hampshire; Romney spent millions. He's still on top of the national polls.

And that sparked this incredible fight at the end of the week between Romney and Giuliani about who was better on taxes and health care. And so you've got these two liberal Republicans - one formerly liberal - fighting over who's the best conservative.

RUDIN: But it doesn't erase the fact that the social right is very uneasy about the prospect of a Giuliani nomination, and that's what giving the Republican Party the nervousness for 2008.

INSKEEP: Can Christian conservatives affectively veto either one of these guys by withholding their support?

RUDIN: Well, they've threatened before. Look, Rudy Giuliani said, look, you know, the fact is I've fought - for this party. I've a very strong record on national security, and I promise to support strict constructionist judges of Supreme Court, which is a little wink to the pro-right lobby that perhaps he may not be as pro-choice as some people think.

INSKEEP: Ken Rudin mentioned Fred Thompson in a debate coming up. Mara, what are you looking for?

LIASSON: Well, Fred Thompson has had what many reporters say is a less than auspicious debut. And I think, you know, there've been reports that he's been lackluster on the stump. He didn't come in with a terrible money number this quarter, but he still was number three, about $9 million. So I guess, what I'll be looking for is can he differentiate himself standing on the stage with all of those other Republicans as the true conservative. That's the niche that he says he's going to fill in this race. And we'll see if he can do that.

INSKEEP: I bring up this next subject with some trepidation. The United States Senate still includes Larry Craig of Idaho, and appears that it will include Larry Craig for sometime.

RUDIN: The gift that keeps on giving.

INSKEEP: Aha. How is that going to affect Republicans as they prepare for the 2008 election, which is already looking pretty tough right now?

RUDIN: Well, first of all, exactly, they're in tough trouble for 2008. Already, Pete Domenici, the longtime senator from New Mexico, announced yesterday that he would not seek a seventh term. That goes, too, with Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, John Warner of Virginia, Wayne Allard of Colorado. And the fact is that with Domenici in the race, with John Warner in the race in Virginia, Republicans should have an easy time with it. The fact that they're retiring gives the Democrats more opportunities to expand their lead. And again, in Idaho, the Democrats are not going to win the Idaho seat. Larry Craig will - the Republicans will keep that seat, but you have him to kick around for another year as further embarrassment to the Republican Party.

INSKEEP: Ken, thanks very much.

RUDIN: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: Ken Rudin is NPR's political editor. NPR's Mara Liasson is our national political correspondent. Mara, thanks very much.

LIASSON: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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