Clinton, Obama Go to the Head of the Pack

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Neither Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York nor Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois have officially announced that they're running for the Democratic presidential nomination. But they're widely seen as the front-runners.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Just a short time after he was photographed on a beach, Senator Barack Obama is, as the old saying goes, showing some leg. He filed papers yesterday establishing a presidential exploratory committee. He is not quite a candidate yet, but he is one of the most closely followed almost-candidates in years. Those tracking him include NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson, who joins us this morning.

Mara, good morning.

MARA LIASSON: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Also NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams is in our studio. Juan, good morning to you.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Mara, let's start with you. This was looking like one of those presidential elections where you might have had six, or seven, or eight Democrats running. Is that still the case now that Obama is looking more serious?

LIASSON: Well, there is a big group of Democrats running. I think what it means now is that there are two frontrunners. The polls put Obama right up there with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. And one of the things that he threatens to do is really starve some of the other candidates of resources.

For instance, Evan Bayh, the senator from Indiana, decided not to run after he went to New Hampshire on the same day that Obama made that rock star visit up there. I think only about a dozen people came to the Bayh event. I think the big question for Obama is what does it mean to offer voters, quote, "a new kind of politics," which is what he said yesterday. You know, he presents himself as this post-partisan politician who can unify people and bridge divisions. But what does that mean?

He's got to put a little meat on those bones. He said yesterday it's not the magnitude of our problems; it's the smallness of our politics. But at some point he has to tell us what unifying solutions he prefers to those big problems.

INSKEEP: You talked about starving people of resources; in a moment we're going to hear a report about how much it really takes now to run for president. And I suppose, Juan Williams, Barack Obama himself has to start raising a lot of money if he wants to be serious.

WILLIAMS: Right out of the box, Steve. At the moment, you know, he did pretty well in this last cycle, the midterm elections of '06, in terms of going out and raising money for other people, and he's got about $4.5 million in his own political action committee. But if you stop and compare it to Hilary Clinton, who was running for Senate in '06, Hilary has, you know, about 20, $14 million, I should say, left over. Spent about $20 million in a campaign where she really didn't have serious competition.

So you understand that Hillary has tremendous resources already available to her - Senator Clinton. And then secondly, that Obama is up against the need to raise about at least $50 million, but potentially $100 million, in order to compete in the four states that have primaries. You know, look a year ahead to '08. You're talking about Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina. He needs...

INSKEEP: Fifty or $100 million before a signal vote is cast.

WILLIAMS: Correct. He needs that out of the box, and he's going to plug in to some of the enthusiasm on the net; I think that's why he had that video introduction yesterday. Some of the enthusiasm he attached to Howard Dean. He's got Oprah Winfrey and the likes on his side. David Axelrod, his top strategist, is a proven money raiser. But that's the challenge.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about some people who've been a little bit cooler. The Sunday Times of London quoted Jesse Jackson, and Al Sharpton, and Harry Belafonte, all of them noticeably cool to an Obama candidacy. Is there unity among African-Americans about the most prominent black American to run for president in a long time, or to consider it?

WILLIAMS: Well, there's not one voice for all African-Americans, Steve, but I say if you talk to the leadership, people like Jackson will say, you know, we've got a number of people who might run. In fact, Al Sharpton's one of those people who says that he may still run. And then you've got people who are saying, gosh, this guy doesn't have much of track record.

Remember, if you think about Barack Obama's really stunning ascendancy, he's the guy who couldn't win his own congressional district, you know, running back against Bobby Rush in Chicago. And Rush has ties to the panthers in the civil rights era. Barack Obama has none of that. So a lot of the old leadership says, you know, who is this young guy. Barack Obama spent yesterday, for example, making lots of phone calls trying to reach out to people.

INSKEEP: And the answer is he's someone who has caught the attention of white voters, we should be frank about that.

WILLIAMS: Yeah. People are jealous, a lot of jealousy.

INSKEEP: Well, Mara Liasson, let's compare the two candidates we've just been talking about, or the two possible candidates; neither has formally declared. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. What are the differences between the two?

LIASSON: Well, the biggest difference of course is the war in Iraq. Obama is the only candidate in the field so far, other than Dennis Kucinich, who was against the war from the very beginning. Otherwise, I think his voting record in the Senate is pretty similar to Mrs. Clinton's. Of course, part of the interest in Obama is that many Democrats are eager for an alternative to Senator Clinton. They think she can't win the White House because either she's too polarizing or she has too much baggage.

I think the big question for Obama is how to run against Mrs. Clinton without actually being negative or attacking her. Her advisers say he has to keep it positive, of course, that's his political persona. And he's not running against anyone. He's not to stop anyone candidate. What I think the message is going to be is that he is new, he is unencumbered. She's the part; he's the future. He's an insurgent - they say he'll run an insurgent campaign. She's the establishment, and I also think that's a probably a good way to get around his lack of experience problem.

INSKEEP: NPR national political correspondent, Mara Liasson, thanks.

LIASSON: Thanks you, Steve.

INSKEEP: And NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams, thank you.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Steve.

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