Despite Polls, Hillary Clinton Is Optimistic About S.C.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton is making another push for support in South Carolina, as voters prepare to vote in the state's Democratic primary.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

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

Coming up, it's the last day before the Democrats vote in South Carolina. It's been a hard-fought campaign. But now, it's time for closing arguments. In just a few minutes, our conversation with Michelle Obama, the wife of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.

But first, from Columbia, South Carolina, the Democratic presidential candidate, the senator from New York, Hillary Clinton.

Thank you so much for joining us.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Democratic Presidential Candidate): Thank you so much for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: How do you like your chances tomorrow in South Carolina? Care to make a prediction?

Sen. CLINTON: This is a very contested primary. We've got, you know, three good candidates with support. And, you know, I believe that we're going to work as hard as we can in the next two days and then we keep going. This has been a yearlong intense effort, and we're nowhere near done yet.

MARTIN: We just got back from South Carolina, where you are now, and we got a chance to talk to a lot of people. It's not going to be a surprise to you that a lot of people are excited about the idea of voting for a qualified African-American candidate.

But we also met a lot of people who admire you and your husband, the former president. And they think it's equally time to give a woman a chance, or they just like what you bring to the table.

So as briefly as you can - and as you mentioned, you've been doing this for, you know, a year now. But as briefly as you can, what do you say to people who say, as so many did to us, I'm torn?

Sen. CLINTON: I say I respect that choice. You know, this is a good problem to have. I mean, here we are in 2008, an African-American, a woman, vying for the toughest job in the world. I'm proud of the Democratic Party. I'm proud of our country.

Obviously, I think that, you know, I have the experience we need to make the changes we want in America, and I'm presenting my case to the public. And people often come to me - and it's really emotional, Michel, you know, because it is a dilemma for so many, particularly for African-Americans because we've had such a long and deep relationship. Both my husband and I - and I have worked with, you know, so many in the communities, so many leaders for so many years.

But, you know, I tell people, look, I understand that this is a tough decision. I hope to win the nomination. We will have a unified Democratic Party. I want you with me to be victorious in November because the most important thing is we have a Democratic president on next January.

MARTIN: Well, speaking to that - there's been a lot of conversation over the last few days about the tone of the race, the tone that this race has taken. Your campaign put up an ad yesterday and took it down. The ad suggested that Senator Obama favors Republican ideas. That was widely criticized by media fact-checkers as a distortion of what he said. Are you at all concerned that you're going to win the battle and lose the war? That some of these tactics are alienating many of the people you might need in November, should you become the nominee?

Sen. CLINTON: No, I'm not. I think that we will definitely be unified. And I think, you know, both Barack and I have said that our campaigns have to be, you know, looking to the future, talking about the issues. I was honored to be endorsed today by the New York Times. And, you know, in their editorial, they called on me to try to set the tone. And I intend to continue to do that.

Obviously, you have to defend yourself if that is necessary. But I hope we can stay focused on what's really at stake in the election, because I don't think it's about any of us as candidates, I think it's about your listeners. I think it's about, you know, the very tough problems that people, you know, bring to me on, you know, every event that I'm at. They come up to me and they talk to me about how hopeful and really, you know, worried they are about getting health care or losing their job, or now losing their home with all of this subprime mortgage crisis.

So I really want to keep talking about what I will do as president, what we can do together as a country.

MARTIN: I am curious, though, about the issue that was raised by the ad, I mean, in the Senate - one of the things that impressed people about you, particularly as a freshman, was your willingness to get to know and work with people across the aisle. I mean, are you saying that there's no idea that originated with a Republican that's worthy of consideration?

Sen. CLINTON: Well, I think that the weight of the ideas have been bad for America. Obviously, you try to find common ground, and I have done that. I've worked with Senator Lindsey Graham from right here in South Carolina to provide health care for National Guard and reserve members across the country over the threat of a veto from President Bush. So there are many opportunities to find common ground. But on a lot of the really big issues that the Republicans have trumpeted for the last 10 to 15 years, you know, I just think that they are, you know, undermining us as a nation. You know, privatizing social security would have been a disaster.

Now, the kind of approach that they've taken toward the war in Iraq with their Republican candidates talking about, you know, being there for 100 years, if necessary. You know, these are ideas that I think the country has rejected, and I certainly am doing everything I can to make sure that, you know, we don't have to put up with them for another four to eight years.

MARTIN: But given that Iraq, for example, is one of the major foreign policy issues that the next president is going to have to confront, are you at all concerned that your emphasis on, you know, shoring up the Democratic base will make it harder for you, if you become the nominee, to work with these folks if you become president.

Sen. CLINTON: I don't think so. I, you know, have served now for a number of years in the Senate Armed Services Committee. I have very deep support among the military. There's a group of retired generals and admirals and other veterans traveling around South Carolina today, talking about why they support me and why they believe I should be commander-in-chief.

We can't expect to have unanimity on these difficult issues, but, I think if a president is willing to work hard across the aisle as I have in the Senate, I think we can reach resolution in good faith with a lot of people. Now, sometimes that's not possible and you have to stand your ground and do what you believe is right. But the first approach should always be trying to, you know, come to some conclusion that will enable us to move forward in a united way.

MARTIN: I just have one more question about the campaign because I do want to get to some things going on in Washington. There have been a number of stories about your husband's role in the campaign. Do you have any concern that his role is overshadowing you as a candidate, and that somehow makes you look weak? And there's also the criticism that it's a little unseemly for a former president to use his stature in a partisan campaign. What's your - what do you say to that?

Sen. CLINTON: Well, I think that all of us running are blessed with very strong and passionate spouses…

MARTIN: But yours is the only one who's a former president.

Sen. CLINTON: Well, I know, and that's an advantage for me. And I'm very grateful for his help, for his - making the case for me. But obviously, I'm running for president. And I have to take responsibility for the job that I am seeking, and I intend to do that.

I think it's important to learn from some of the successes that he was able to bring about, particularly with respect to the economy, because we're going to be facing, you know, all of that again, it appears, as we're trying to dig ourselves out of the deep hole that President Bush is leaving us in. So it is very helpful to me to have his support, to have his, you know, willingness to make the case for me, but I have to, you know, be viewed on my merits and make the case for myself.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin. I'm speaking with Senator Hillary Clinton, a Democratic candidate for president.

Let's talk about the agreement between the White House and the House leadership on a stimulus package, a package of - to stimulate the economy. Are you going to support it?

Sen. CLINTON: Well, I will support it. It is not all that I think we need to be doing. But it is better than it started out to be when the president began to talk about what he would support. We do get money into a broader number of hands than was originally suggested, and I think that's important. But it leaves out three major components that I feel strongly about - one is jobs, one is energy and one is this mortgage crisis.

You know, on the jobs front, we've got to replenish the unemployment compensation system, and so far that has not been part of the agreement. And we have to be sure that we start investing in the jobs of the future. That's why I have suggested, you know, putting money immediately into what I call green-collar jobs, you know, making it possible for us to put people to work, weatherizing homes and installing solar panels, because that will give us a jumpstart on what we need to be doing as we try to retool for an economy that has to create more jobs than it's doing.

I think we should help people with their energy bills. We have a lot of people on fixed incomes, particularly our seniors, low-income people that are having a really tough time with the increase in gas and utility prices. And finally, this mortgage crisis is really at the root of so much of what's gone wrong, and we have not confronted it.

I would have a moratorium for 90 days on foreclosures and try to help work out ways of keeping people in their homes, and I would freeze interest rates for five years.

MARTIN: Is that realistic, though, in the middle of an election year?

Sen. CLINTON: Oh, I think it is, absolutely. Now, what I have been recommending is voluntary. You know, I went to Wall Street in December and asked the Wall Street firms to be part of the solution. They were certainly part of the problem, unfortunately. And I think if we don't stem the bleeding, what will happen is that millions of Americans will lose their homes in the next year.

That will have the impact of vacant homes in neighborhoods, which will lower home values across the board, have deteriorating services in many of our cities and rural areas as well. I think that will compound the economic challenges we face, and I think we should do more to try to prevent that.

MARTIN: What about the fact that unemployment insurance and extension of unemployment benefits and food stamp increases were taken out of this package in order to insure that there could be a rebate for non-taxpayers. A lot of Democrats are very upset about that. Do you think that's a fair trade-off?

Sen. CLINTON: Yeah. I don't think it's a good trade-off. I don't think it needed to be a trade-off. I think we could have done both. But we're going to have to address unemployment and food stamps. And I think, probably, the Democratic leadership realized that we're going to have to get to that. I fought for an extension of unemployment insurance after 9/11 because, you know, so many people, not just in the New York area, but across the country, lost their jobs as a result of, you know, the horrible events of that day. And it took me months to make the case to my Republican colleagues that we had to extend and expand unemployment insurance. I will be making that case. Others will as well. And eventually, we're going to have to do it because people will be left without a lifeline if we don't, you know, shore up the unemployment system and the food stamp system.

MARTIN: Senator, one more question - and it is a tough one. You went to college in Massachusetts. You represent New York. Giants or the Patriots?

Sen. CLINTON: Giants all the way.

MARTIN: What's the spread?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Come on now.

Sen. CLINTON: You went to school in Massachusetts, too, Michel, so…

MARTIN: Ah, yeah.

Sen. CLINTON: …are you a Patriots fan?

MARTIN: And I'm from New York - so what's the spread?

Sen. CLINTON: It's a challenge, but we got to go with our New York team.

MARTIN: Okay. You're not going to make a prediction on the outcome, right? On the final score? What's the final score?

Sen. CLINTON: Well, you know, I don't have that much ability to predict the future, but I think that New York is going to do really well. They're on a roll and I'm excited to see what happens.

MARTIN: Okay.

Hillary Clinton, senator from New York, Democratic candidate for president, joining us from Columbia, South Carolina. Senator Clinton, thanks so much.

Sen. CLINTON: Thank you. Great to talk with you.

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