Presidential Campaigning Heats Up Early

The early onset of presidential campaigning has Democratic and Republican hopefuls already working hard to win support for their White House bids.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Joining us now, as she does every Monday, is NPR News analyst Cokie Roberts. Good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama already at sword points, what does this mean for the Democratic Party in 2008?

ROBERTS: Well, the truth is it can be good for the party if they don't rip each other apart. That's a big if. It sparks interest in the party. There's - everybody's now talking about it, they can get their ideas out there as well as their differences. That can be useful. It also mutes somewhat the Republican argument that the Democrats take the black vote for granted. And that argument is not one that has caught on terribly well in the community, but it's a concerted effort among Republicans. And with younger blacks, middle class blacks, it's having a tiny bit of resonance.

The real question as the campaign wears on and as the polls get closer is what do these candidates do. Do they start slinging a lot of mud? Do they start digging things up against each other? And then that does become very destructive.

MONTAGNE: At the same time, Republicans don't seem to be having an easy time of it either. The conservative union met over the last few days in Washington and it was not thrilled with any of the candidates.

ROBERTS: No, that's right. They did a straw poll of presidential preference and Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, won that. But that is, as much as anything, a question of organizing the people who are in the room. But the truth is the conservatives really don't have a candidate.

Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, says, you know, well we have our disagreements with each other. And he said to them, I even disagree with myself sometimes. But the truth is his disagreement is huge. It's over a variety of issues that conservatives in the party care deeply about, and the biggest is abortion, where he has been consistently pro-choice on abortion.

And it's interesting, though, the person who has been consistently pro-life is John McCain, and he is really nowhere at the moment among the conservatives. They - he didn't show up at this meeting. He came in last in the poll. Then despite his efforts over the last six years or so to woo the base of the Republican Party, including making up with the Reverend Jerry Falwell whom he had attacked during the 2000 campaign, the conservatives have not forgiven him for that campaign, the statements he made against the leaders of the religious right.

And they are really still looking for somebody to be their standard bearer. They keep talking about former speaker Newt Gingrich, but he has had enormous personal problems that I think would not fly with the conservative base once they've focused on him. So they're still searching.

MONTAGNE: You know, let's go to another area. Is this early focus on the presidential campaign affecting work in Congress?

ROBERTS: Well, sure. It affects how they do business, particularly since there are a lot of senators running for office. And everybody kind of looks at Obama and Clinton and sort of tries to figure out how they play certain things. But the big thing that has really affected business in Congress is the question of how to deal with the Iraq resolution.

Other legislation not happening, but it's early. And the Republican administration is learning that it's difficult to have a Congress in the hands of the other party.

Today, hearings start on the alleged abuses of Walter Reed Hospital and other military facilities. And the president has named his own commission to investigate that. But it's going to be a lot tougher having the Congress investigate it. And this is just the first of many investigations where this administration will be called to answer questions and find it uncomfortable.

MONTAGNE: Cokie, thanks very much. NPR's Cokie Roberts.

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