The State of the Presidential Race

Hillary Clinton

Sen. Hillary Clinton speaks in Terre Haute, Ind. on March 20, 2008. Christina Jamison/NBC NewsWire via AP Images hide caption

itoggle caption Christina Jamison/NBC NewsWire via AP Images

Politico.com's John Harris discusses the political landscape, including the fallout from Michigan and Florida's apparent decisions not to redo their primaries, Sen. John McCain's trip abroad, Sen. Barack Obama's speech on race and more.

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RACHEL MARTIN, host:

So, it's March. That means it's March Madness, but it's not just for basketball. Lots of power plays and ricochets in the political arena over the weekend. Let's recap a bit. On the Democratic side on Friday, Barack Obama got a key endorsement from New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, and his rival's husband and chief campaign surrogate made a rather cryptic comment about patriotism.

Meantime, Michigan and Florida said they won't redo their primary elections, which could affect Hillary Clinton's chance to recapture - to capture, rather, the popular vote. Republican nominee John McCain had a busy week visiting Iraq on the fifth anniversary of the U.S. war, and stopping in on Europe to gin up support from key U.S. allies. And Barack Obama's speech on race last week was still top of mind yesterday for many Christians who celebrated Easter Sunday. What does it all mean? This is when we turn to our friend, Politico.com's editor-in-chief John Harris. Hi, John.

Mr. JOHN HARRIS (Editor-in-Chief, Politico.com): Oh, that's a heavy burden on me.

MARTIN: Yeah, no pressure.

Mr. HARRIS: Especially for the morning. OK, bring it on.

MARTIN: What does it all mean?

ALISON STEWART, host:

Yeah, really. Suck up a little bit of caffeine there, buddy.

Mr. HARRIS: I'm like those oracles on the top of the hillside in the Himalayas.

MARTIN: You are indeed. That's how we think of you.

Mr. HARRIS: Come to me for answers.

MARTIN: OK, we're going to start maybe with the easy stuff, I don't know. Florida and Michigan - no go on the revote. What does this mean? What does it do to Hillary's campaign?

Mr. HARRIS: Well, it really is a serious wound for Hillary's campaign, because it never looked like she - it was going to be possible for her to go above Barack Obama in the elected delegates, but if she could go decisively ahead of him in the popular vote, she thought that would help her case with superdelegates. Look, he's ahead in these elected delegates, but I've won more actual voters - give the nomination to me. Without Michigan and Florida's votes, it doesn't look like it's possible for her to make that case.

MARTIN: Now, there is a piece on your very own site by another of our friends, Jim VandeHie, and Mike Allen, alleging that this not nearly as close a race as the media have made it out to be, and the piece makes the case that the only real chance, as you have just articulated, is for Hillary to rebound with the superdelegates. But why is this really so unlikely? I mean, Clinton does trail Obama by about 100 pledged delegates in a variety of different counts, but there are still lots of those uncommitted, over 260, and 71 have yet to be named. Why is it so implausible that she could rebound that way?

Mr. HARRIS: The reason those guys said it's virtually impossible is that in order for Hillary Clinton to be the nominee, the superdelegates would have to say that even though Barack Obama has - is ahead, and even though he's the most serious African-American presidential candidate ever, and even though African-Americans are passionately committed to him, and are the Democratic Party's most reliable constituency, the nomination should go to somebody else.

Really what they were focusing on is, you know, to be blunt, the race factor, and that if an African-American is ahead in the votes, he's going to be the Democratic nominee. And I think there is a - I happen to share their analysis. Even though it's close, he's ahead - it would risk a serious and potentially long lasting rupture of the Democratic Party if African-Americans were told, your candidate is not the nominee, even though he won the most votes.

MARTIN: So, speaking of the race issue, it's still top of mind for so many people. I mean, it's almost a week out from when Obama gave this speech on race in response to the media frenzy, and the comments by his former pastor. Is he a different candidate today than he was a week ago as a result of that speech?

Mr. HARRIS: No, I don't think so. He said he wanted a national conversation on race, and he got it. I guess if you were to argue that he was a different candidate, it might be in the perception. The speech - it went over great with Democratic activists, with elite media commentators. It clearly succeeded as a rhetorical address. Did it succeed as a political matter? That is, did it put the Reverend Wright controversy to rest? I think that's uncertain, and our reporting at Politico suggests there are still a lot of voters that Obama needs, in particular, white, ethnic, lower-middle-class voters, who are really upset about this.

If he's changed, and some people have suggested the reason he's changed is that he is now perceived as the African-American candidate, whereas before he was just a talented Democratic who happened to be African-American. So if he's solidified his identity as the black candidate in the race, maybe that's the difference you're talking about, in which case, it's probably not a great thing for him.

MARTIN: Now, there was - former President Bill Clinton seemingly has tried to shift the focus. There was so much attention last week put to this issue of race and Obama's speech, but last week when Clinton was speaking to a group of veterans in North Carolina, the former president made references to a presidential contest potentially between his wife Hillary and John McCain. Let's listen to what he said.

(Soundbite of speech)

Former President BILL CLINTON: I think it'd be a great thing if we had an election year when you had two people who love this country, and were devoted to the interests of the country, and people could actually ask themselves who's right on these issues instead of all this other stuff that always seems to intrude itself on our politics.

MARTIN: Uh, what's that about, John?

Mr. HARRIS: Uh, well, look, Bill Clinton has been bashed for that remark because some Obama supporters interpreted as him implying that Obama himself wouldn't be a patriotic candidate to go against John McCain. You know, Clinton bashing - he's been the big pinata in this race.

Some of those whacks he's deserved. This one he does not. Come on, he was not making a statement about Obama's patriotism. He was talking about what a race would be like - the race he wants to see between his wife Hillary Clinton and John McCain. I think no more, no less than that. So it's just one of those kind of mini-controversies that adds up to not much.

MARTIN: Speaking of John McCain, he's been a busy man recently, traveling abroad. He was in Iraq over the fifth year anniversary of the U.S. invasion, and then he stopped over in Europe. He met with leaders in Britain, in France, striking a conciliatory tone, talking about issues that people in international circles like to hear about. Kyoto Protocol, shutting down Guantanamo Bay, these are the big money shots in conversations about U.S. foreign diplomacy. How was he received?

Mr. HARRIS: Look, Europe is so desperate for any American leader whose last name is not Bush that they're more than happy to welcome John McCain, especially if he's going to be talking about these kinds of things, which are huge issues. And by the way, they were huge issues like Guantanamo Bay, even before that became a big issue in American politics, right immediately in the wake of 2000 - of September 11th, that was a big issue.

MARTIN: But the war is still a problem for McCain in Europe.

Mr. HARRIS: Correct, and Afghanistan is a big issue. In Europe - people in the United States forget that it's NATO troops, a lot of Europeans, who were taking the lead in Afghanistan. A lot of them are getting sick of it, and the European troop levels are going down.

MARTIN: Before I let you go, John, also on that trip, McCain made a gaff that's gotten quite a bit of...

Mr. HARRIS: Uh, oh.

MARTIN: Traction. While speaking to reporters in Jordan, he said that Iran was, quote, "taking al-Qaeda into Iran, training them, and sending them back." He had to be corrected by Senator Joe Lieberman, who was traveling with him. Now, because the gaff is that U.S. officials have alleged that Iran has been training and arming Shiite militias in Iraq, not al-Qaeda.

Mr. HARRIS: Right.

MARTIN: What - is this really a big deal?

Mr. HARRIS: You knew that, didn't you?

MARTIN: Of course, I did!

Mr. HARRIS: You wouldn't have got that one wrong. It was - for a trip was that all about portraying John McCain as the most experienced and knowledgeable on foreign policy, that kind of gaff was not helpful, and, you know, just to sort of identify the subtext that's in everybody's mind, particularly because John McCain is an older candidate, that there's always going to be whispering about this was perhaps a, shall we say, a "senior moment."

MARTIN: Exactly, as he's trying to bolster his credentials as the foreign expert. Hey, John Harris of Politico.com, thanks so much. We appreciate it.

Mr. HARRIS: Talk to you soon. Bye-bye.

MARTIN: This is the BPP from NPR News.

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