Presidents' Day Brings Out the Hopefuls

The 2008 presidential candidates were reaching out to voters over the Presidents' Day weekend. Each of the candidates in the race faces a different set of obstacles.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

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

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Two of the leading presidential candidates face the same challenge. They're both well known, they're both raising plenty of cash, but they both face a complicated job of explaining their views on Iraq. One is Democrat Hillary Clinton and the other is Republican John McCain. They were among the candidates seeking votes over the President's Day weekend.

And NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson was listening. Mara, Good morning.

MARA LIASSON: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Before we talk about what they said and did, how much does it actually matter what these candidates say and do more than a year and half before the election?

LIASSON: I think it matters a lot, Steve. In this era of YouTube, where every single remark is recorded for posterity, every single thing you say matters and you'll be reminded about it a year from now.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about some things that Hillary Clinton has been saying about Iraq. How is she approaching this issue, given that she voted to authorize the use of force?

LIASSON: Well, you know, she's been pressed again and again by anti-war activists, by Democrats, particularly in New Hampshire, to recant her vote or to apologize. And she has settled on a strategy that she believes will work in the general election. She does not want to apologize or say the word sorry or the word mistake, and risk being accused of a John Kerry-like flip-flop on the war.

Now here's what she said in New Hampshire on Saturday.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): If the most important thing to any of you is choosing someone who did not cast that vote, or who has said his vote was a mistake, then there are others to chose from. But to me, the most important thing now is trying to end this war.

LIASSON: So she's drawn the line in the sand there. Now she has been evolving in her approach to ending the war. She introduced legislation last week that would require the U.S. to begin pulling out forces in three months. And if that doesn't happen, she says, Congress should revoke the authorization for the war.

Mrs. Clinton knows that if she's in a general election, she's running for commander in chief. And being seen as strong leader, particularly on national security, is a very important hurdle for any Democrat, particularly for the first female nominee to overcome. And that's what she's focusing on.

INSKEEP: The awkwardness there of course is the Democratic primaries, where you have a lot of anti-war votes.

LIASSON: Right.

INSKEEP: Let's go over to the Republican side - John McCain. How are voters responding to the way that he has supported President Bush in general?

LIASSON: John McCain has a very different problem. He has probably been the most closely identified with the president's war policy than any other member of the Senate. Here's what he said in South Carolina on Sunday about the president's new policy of increasing troops.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): I have great confidence in this new strategy. I believe that we have a good chance of succeeding. And I can't guarantee success, though, but I can guarantee the consequences of failure: Chaos, genocide in the region, and a situation where America would probably have to come back.

LIASSON: Now more than anything else, the war really dominates McCain's campaign. And while he and his advisers have been very open about the possibility that this could cause him problems in a general election next year, the argument that he's been making has a lot of support among the Republican primary voters McCain is focusing on this year. So he and his advisers all say if the surge works, it helps him in the general election; if it doesn't, it hurts him. And McCain says that's just beyond my control.

INSKEEP: Mara, very briefly, what did you see when you watched McCain over the weekend in South Carolina, where his presidential campaign crashed in 2000?

LIASSON: Well, he's trying to build bridges there. Repair the damage. He's hired a lot of the Bush financial folks there. He's gotten endorsements from a lot of the state-elected officials who supported the president last time. In every way he's trying to be the successor to Bush, the establishment candidate, quite a change from the maverick he was in 2000.

He's also reaching out to social conservatives, not changing his positions. He's still against the federal gay marriage amendment. He's still for stem cell research. But he's actively courting social conservative activists, instead of sticking his finger in their eye the way he did seven years ago.

INSKEEP: Mara, thanks very much.

LIASSON: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR national political correspondent, Mara Liasson.

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