Politicians Sling Mud in Tense Political Week

Sparks are flying as Democratic White House hopefuls decide to take off the gloves in throwing campaign jabs. In this week's Political Chat, Perry Bacon of the Washington Post and Christina Bellantoni from the Washington Times discuss the 2008 Presidential field, including the who should be taken seriously as the Republican frontrunner.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

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

Later in the program, the man who is bringing Donna is back to the airwaves. Citadel Broadcasting vice president for news/talk programming is with us. And a special Barbershop - we'll explain.

But first, our regular Friday political roundtable. Fireworks in the presidential nomination race on the Democratic side and a slow and steady march to the nomination on the Republican side. We're one year and two days out, folks.

Joining me in the studio to talk about all of these, Perry Bacon with The Washington Post and Christina Bellantoni with the Washington Times - both cover politics.

Welcome. Thanks so much for joining me.

Ms. CHRISTINA BELLANTONI (National Political Writer, Washington Times): Thanks for having us.

Mr. PERRY BACON (Staff Writer, The Washington Post): Thank you.

MARTIN: Let's get right to the mudslinging. I mean, maybe not quite mud, maybe lint-slinging.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: There's definitely a different tone on the Democratic side of the campaign than we had just a week before.

Perry, what's happened?

Mr. BACON: I think at some point, all the candidates, particularly Senator Obama, decided that he needs to really engage and Senator Clinton - and attack her. And specifically not attack her on issues, but also suggests that she's - Edwards and Obama says that she was sort of poll-driven and calculating. So they really decided to sort of dialed up and make it a little more about her character, because I think she succeeded in saying that her - of her using the issues are very similar to theirs. And I think that's generally true. So she -they really (unintelligible) cynic about her character.

MARTIN: And what was the vehicle for doing it? Was it interviews? There was a debate last week. How did they decide to step it up?

Mr. BACON: Obama was going to be interviewed at the New York Times. He also - specifically also in the debate itself. I think both he - of course, he and Edwards, like, both from the beginning, you know, used the first question from the beginning to say Hillary Clinton has flipped-flopped or not been honest about Social Security and Iran.

And then, of course, there was a moment in the end of the debate that was very striking when she was asked if she supported illegal - if she supported legal immigrant's driver's licenses. And Senator Chris Dodd…

MARTIN: Which is a proposal in New York State, which is her home state.

Mr. BACON: (unintelligible).

MARTIN: You know, Governor - Democratic Governor Eliot Spitzer is advancing this proposal.

Mr. BACON: Exactly. And it's always been very controversial in New York as well. And she was asked about it and she seemed to, you know, to say it was a good idea but wouldn't really say if she was for it or not. And Senators Obama and Edwards and actually Chris Dodd and, the Clinton folks say, the moderator Tim Russert also seemed to really be emphatic about trying to make her - pin her down on the answer.

MARTIN: The response from the Clinton campaign has been to produce a video titled, "The Politics of Pile On," which shows some of these attacks from the debate in rapid fire. Let's hear it.

(Soundbite of "The Politics of Pile On")

Unidentified Man #1: Senator Clinton.

Unidentified Man #2: Senator Clinton.

Unidentified Man #3: Senator Clinton.

Unidentified Man #4: Senator Clinton.

Unidentified Man #5: Senator Clinton.

Unidentified Man #6: Senator Clinton.

Unidentified Man #7: Hillary Clinton.

Unidentified Man #8: Senator Clinton.

Unidentified Man #9: Senator Clinton.

Unidentified Man #10: Senator Clinton.

Unidentified Man #11: Senator Clinton.

Unidentified Man #12: Senator Clinton.

Unidentified Man #13: Senator Clinton.

Unidentified Man #14: Senator Clinton.

Unidentified Man #15: Senator Clinton.

Unidentified Man #16: Hillary.

Unidentified Man #17: Hillary.

Unidentified Man #18: Hillary.

Unidentified Man #19: Hillary Clinton.

Unidentified Man #20: Hillary.

Unidentified Man #21: The first lady, and now Senator Clinton.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Presidential Candidate): I seemed to be the topic of great conversation and consternation, and that's for a reason.

MARTIN: Now, you can see the video on YouTube, if you want to.

Christina, I wanted to ask you, for somebody who wants to be commander in chief, is this a good idea? It seems to me - she seems to be wanting to make the point that she's being piled on. But is that a good idea?

Ms. BELLANTONI: Hey, piling on, I think is becoming the new talking point of the race this week. It's a great question because some people look at it as fun. You know, oh, look, all these people are talking about her and she's made this joke, oh, I'm the subject of all these men because she's the only woman in the race. She can do that. But I had a conversation last night with a few, you know, very successful, intelligent, talented women that were saying, hmm.

Actually that's kind of irritating to me. She's very tough. Why would she kind of accuse these people of bullying her and attacking her when she really - she was just on the defensive for some of her answers.

MARTIN: Were these women Democrats or Republicans, or do you know?

Ms. BELLANTONI: I actually don't know. They're probably Democrats based on where I was, but I didn't ask.

MARTIN: Perry, what about you? Is there any risk for the male candidates in the race by attacking her? And do you remember in her Senate race, in her first Senate race, her opponent, you know, crossed the stage at one point and started physically confront her even though she was the frontrunner anyway. It did not - it was not well received by the voters. What do you think?

Mr. BACON: I think it's for John Edwards and Obama, who are her sort of central rivals, I think it's less about them being men attacking her. Obama in particular and Edwards have both their brand of politics as, you know, they're positive, they're idealistic. I think in that sense it's like, you know, it would - I think it's not - you know, Obama early on, like in August, when he attacked Senator Clinton, a voter in Iowa actually came up to him and asked him, I'm nervous by you doing this. I don't want you to sound like every other politician that I hear all the time.

I think for Obama and Edwards who are really been known as sort of positive people I think that's a challenge to them is how do they attack her while not ruining their own brands.

Ms. BELLANTONI: And…

MARTIN: Go ahead, Christina.

Ms. BELLANTONI: Okay. If - you always hear a lot from both President Bill Clinton and Senator Clinton saying you're not going to hear me saying anything bad about anybody. You know, what a great opportunity we have in this field. They're really laudatory of all the other rivals. So it stands out that the other - her challengers are sort of starting to point out her differences.

MARTIN: No. But she is the frontrunner.

Ms. BELLANTONI: Actually…

MARTIN: You can do the royal wave.

Ms. BELLANTONI: That would be something, right?

MARTIN: You know, she can afford to give the royal wave. But speaking of that, the national polls do show that Senator Clinton is ahead. Now, her rivals to this point have been saying the national polls are irrelevant. They don't really mean anything. But the state polls in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina also show the same thing.

So, Christina, do you think that this debate that Perry was talking about where they kind of unloaded on her for the first time, and do you think that that's going to change the dynamics in any way?

Ms. BELLANTONI: I'm not sure that the debate itself will change dynamics. At this point, a lot more people are starting to pay attention in some of the bigger states. The early states, they've been paying attention for a long time. But all the polls show that there are still a high number of undecided voters, especially in Iowa, which is to this central battleground where she is putting a lot of resources and a lot of time. She's going there, I think, tonight for a four-day swing. And it's really important for her to win in Iowa.

MARTIN: But, Perry, the Democrats moved South Carolina and Nevada's primaries up in part to offer, you know, more diversity, to bring different constituencies into the process early on. So - but if there is this Clinton juggernaut in Iowa and in New Hampshire, do South Carolina and Nevada even matter?

Mr. BACON: I think if Senator Clinton wins Iowa and New Hampshire, sure, it will be very hard for anybody to win. In that case, I think South Carolina and Nevada will matter very little. I do think if, you know, if there's a split result, if Edwards wins Iowa or Obama wins Iowa and she wins New Hampshire, then I think South Carolina and Nevada would (unintelligible) particularly, will mean a lot. Nevada, to be honest, has been a sort of - like (unintelligible) campaign (unintelligible) a little bit. South Carolina, I think, will be particularly important. Obama's campaign thinks they can do very well because of the large black population. So it will be interesting to watch.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. Christina, what do you think?

Ms. BELLANTONI: And you'll also have Michigan in the middle of all that. They've broken the DMC rules and they're supposed to have a primary on January 15th. And the only people on that ballot are Senator Clinton, Senator Chris Dodd and Dennis Kucinich. And so Senator Clinton is very likely to win that race as well.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

In the studio with me today, political reporters Christina Bellantoni with the Washington Times and Perry Bacon with The Washington Post.

Let's talk about the Republican side of the equation. You have former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani leading Mitt Romney in the national polls. But then you've got Mitt Romney leading Giuliani in the state polls in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

So, Christina, what does that mean?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BELLANTONI: It's a great question. You see this split in both races. It's very interesting. But with Rudy Giuliani, you hear a lot of Republicans talking about he's the best position to beat Senator Clinton. And everybody is assuming that she will be the nominee. And even in the Republican debate, they all mentioned Senator Clinton just as often as the Democrats did. And, in fact, that quote in her ad about the subject of great consternation and conversation, she was actually talking about the Republicans in that quote. And she puts it together with the Democrats.

So right now, Romney is - he's doing very well because he spent a lot of time and a lot of money in Iowa. And the other states, he's - he doesn't have such a solid lead. And so it's a real question of whether Giuliani can translate his broad, national appeal into this state contest.

MARTIN: Do you think that it's too personalized, Perry, essentially that the other people just out of it?

Mr. BACON: No, I don't. I think that if Fred Thompson just got in, so I'm - I think people are still feeling him out particularly in the South. He's sort of the only Southerner and this is a - Republicans are more of a Southern party than they used to be, and I think, you know, they have to feel him out. And John McCain is sort of coming up in the poll. He's very popular in New Hampshire, where he won in 2007. I wouldn't count him out yet either.

MARTIN: But, you know, one of the things that interest me, Christina, is that there's lots of talk about unrest among religious conservatives. But they're all religious conservatives in the field. What about, you know, Mike Huckabee? He's a Pentecostal minister. Sam Brownback just left the race - clearly a religious conservative. You know, what is it that religious conservatives aren't finding?

Ms. BELLANTONI: I think a lot of them do like Mike Huckabee. And one of the problems with him is he's getting hit on the other side, not being physically conservative enough. But the religious conservatives are split among candidates like Huckabee - some of them like Tom Tancredo. You also have some of them liking Mitt Romney. And so there's the question of his Mormonism and whether that will translate it, and what people can expect from a Mormon presidency. And he says it would be no different than any other presidency. So I think that that's - everybody is just kind of making up their minds but you have this threat also of a third-party candidate for social conservatives. And so I think there's a lot of worry on the Republican side of who can take that mantel and actually win the nomination.

MARTIN: SO, is the issue not so much ideological compatibility as both compatibility and winability. Is that it?

Ms. BELLANTONI: It seems to be. That's what voters say. They're considering both. And a lot of voters say they will never vote for a pro-choice Republican or Democrat.

MARTIN: Like Rudy Giuliani.

Ms. BELLANTONI: Right.

MARTIN: Right. Right. And Perry, you brought up Thompson. You know, he got in late. He thought it's not a problem. But he didn't really seem to be getting any traction. So why do you think he's still a factor?

Mr. BACON: Only cause the field is still unsettled. I think he's still factor. He's not been very impressive on the stump, but, you know, he seems to have a much lighter schedule. He used to be doing a lot of events. And he doesn't seem to be campaigning as actively as some of the other candidates either. So I'm not - I'm uncertain of what his strategy is right now. But I think it's so undefined that I'm just skeptical - I'm reluctant to say who's out and this is a two-man race already. But it's close to - I mean, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney are probably - more likely than anybody else to win the Republican nominations.

MARTIN: Uh-hmm. And what do you think about Fred Thompson, Christina, how he's doing?

Ms. BELLANTONI: Well, one thing, Fred Thompson getting in so late, he still has to raise money. And so a lot of the reasons he's not doing the stumping is because he's out doing his private fundraisers. But in both cases, I do like to say it's not a two or three-person race because that's what Iowa is all about. It's about the second-tier candidates being able to breakthrough and actually makes things happen. And we're 61 days away, I think, from the Iowa caucus. So I'm convinced anything can happen.

MARTIN: So finally, I just can't let you go without asking this. This is the earliest an election cycle that's ever started - at least in my memory - and we keep hearing that people aren't paying attention yet, and what - I wonder if voter fatigue could already be setting in? I'm just wondering which you're hearing from the readers of your publications. Do you think people are still interested? Are you getting a lot of, you know, when you go to events, the people seemed engaged? Are you getting a lot of letters to the editor. What's -how do you gauge it compare to when you sort of covered past campaigns, Christina?

Ms. BELLANTONI: For me - this is my first national presidential campaign, but for me, it seems like people are very engaged. And not necessarily in all of the states, but people are following the news. They're reading a lot under a lot of different blogs and newspaper sites. And I think that this is where people are very, very interested in the race.

MARTIN: Okay, Perry, very quickly.

Mr. BACON: People say they're tired of covering - they keep hearing about the campaign. But they've been talking about their very detailed observations of who they like best. They seem they're following it pretty well to me. So…

MARTIN: Okay. Perry Bacon is with the Washington Post. Christina Bellantoni is with the Washington Times. They both cover politics. They both were here with me in the studio in Washington.

Thank you, both, so much for coming in.

Ms. BELLANTONI: Thank you so much. Have a great day.

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