Texas-Sized Argument in the Democratic Party

Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton duked it out this weekend over Texas's delegates. Politico.com's Jim VandeHei discusses the fact that some supporters say they would consider abandoning the party if their candidate isn't the nominee.

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RACHEL MARTIN, host:

So, there was yelling, there were tears, someone even called the cops, for crying out loud. Yet just another weekend in the Democratic race for the White House. Let's just say some things got ugly Saturday in Texas, almost a month after Hillary Clinton won the state primary there, and Barack Obama won the caucus. Thousands of Texas Democrats battled over how to interpret those March 4th results, and which delegates to send to the national convention this summer.

The Democrat on Democrat clashes continued yesterday when surrogates of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama hit the talk-show circuit to address recent calls by top Democrats for Clinton to bail out. Here's Clinton supporter James Carville on CNN's "Late Night."

(Soundbite of show "Late Night")

Mr. JAMES CARVILLE (Democratic Analyst): The Obama strategy seems to be to find some bow-white guys with hair to call on her to get out of the race. I think they ought to go to McCain to get him to get out of the race!

MARTIN: And as the party infighting plays out in the Democratic camp, presumptive GOP nominee John McCain is charting his straight-talk express on the new campaign tour for the general election. Joining us now for some Monday morning political perspective is Jim VandeHei, executive editor of politico.com. Hi, Jim.

Mr. JIM VANDEHEI (Executive Editor, Politico.com): Morning. How are you doing?

MARTIN: We're doing just fine, thanks. Hey, Jim. What happened in Texas? I mean, it sounded like things actually got kind of rough - shoving matches, booing and crying at the 280 Democratic district conventions. If Clinton won the primary, Obama won the caucus March 4th, what were they getting so worked up about?

Mr. VANDEHEI: Well, they were getting so worked up about how they actually end up allocating the delegates from the state. They have this weird complex formula in Texas where it is part primary, part caucus, and the caucus part is still going on. They are still trying to decide precisely how many votes Barack Obama will get. You know, it now looks like you could have Barack Obama with more delegates out of Texas than Hillary Clinton actually winning the state, in which, to most people who are probably like, what is going on here?

But that's the process that the Democrats have put it place. It's very confusing to a lot of voters. It's certainly confusing to people who are spectators in the political sport, and they are trying to figure out who is up and who is down, and how do you actually divine who is the winner of these states?

MARTIN: Now, let's talk about some new polls out suggesting McCain, John McCain, is gaining some ground against both Clinton and Obama. At least 20 percent of each Democratic candidate's supporters say they would consider abandoning the Democratic Party all together in November if their particular candidate isn't the nominee.

Now, is this some of the reasoning - is this why we're seeing some of the party elders calling for Hillary to step down? Patrick Leahy, Chris Dodd - they did it on Friday. Is this the rationale?

Mr. VANDEHEI: I think that's part of it. There's certainly a panic mode among some Democrats who feel like, you know what? This is getting nasty. It's hurting the Democratic Party to the benefit of John McCain. You know, the truth is I would not put a whole bunch of faith in these polls. They are measuring a couple of things, I think, a little bit inaccurately ,in that McCain's numbers are probably going up because no one is paying any attention to him, and all they are hearing about are bad things about Democrats.

Those 20 percent of backers for both Obama and Clinton that say they'd vote for McCain, I think a little of that is sort of primary season frustration. I doubt that that number would be that high in a general election, but you have a group of people in Washington who just feel like, you know what, we need to end this and start the general election campaign because we're operating on such favorable ground. If we blow this election, what election will we possibly win?

I think that might be a little short-sighted of a view, because I do feel like while this city tends to hyperventilate, most people don't pay that much attention, and once this whole process works itself out, there will be a fair balance between Democrats and Republicans in the race, and I think Democrats will return pretty favorable ground in that general election, but running against a pretty strong Republican candidate.

ALISON STEWART, host:

So Jim, what do you think about the idea that Barack Obama said, yeah, you know, Hillary Clinton should just keep on going on? Let her keep doing her thing. That's what she says she's going to do. That's what her husband says she's going to do. Is that a good strategy on his part?

Mr. VANDEHEI: It's the only strategy he has. He can't personally call for her to get out of the race, and quite frankly, it would be absurd for her to get out of it right now. It's close enough, and there's enough fluidity in the process right now that she could stick in at least through Pennsylvania. I think Barack Obama knows that, and if he were seen as trying to push her out it would look bad. Quite frankly, I think the Clintons like this.

I think they like the fact that everyone is saying hey, you should get out, so that they can play the victim, and they can say listen, here they go again! Sort of, the men's club telling the woman to get out of the race. That fires up the women voters. It helped a lot before New Hampshire. A similar strategy helped a lot before Ohio and Texas, so I think they are happy to be playing on the defensive and saying look at what's happening.

(Soundbite of banging)

MARTIN: Jim...

STEWART: Jim, what the heck is going on?

MARTIN: Yeah, where are you, Jim?

STEWART: That's what we want to know most importantly.

Mr. VANDEHEI: Noisy kids who are not being cooperative with our radio interview!

STEWART: Oh!

MARTIN: Oh, kids. Multi-tasking! Jim, I want to ask you about Barack Obama's strategy in Pennsylvania. There he has - he has been going to more intimate venues on this particular state tour in an effort to shed some of that rock-star Obamanon stuff. Is that working?

Mr. VANDEHEI: Not clear yet. So far the polling evidence suggests that it is not necessarily working. He still trails pretty significantly in most polling in the state. The truth is, though, that he has to make a play in Pennsylvania. He does not want to get blown out in a state that does not - the demographics are not good for him. It's very much like Ohio where you have a lot of working-class whites in rural areas.

They have not been kind to Barack Obama in similar states. In Ohio, you know, it was about 13 different counties that border Pennsylvania and West Virginia that are very rural and very white, and he got trounced by Hillary Clinton in those districts, in those areas, and they worry that the same pattern could repeat itself in Pennsylvania.

MARTIN: I want to talk about John McCain. He is kicking off what's called this "biography tour" today, trying to reintroduce him to the American public. He has a new ad out focusing on his P.O.W. experience. Let's listen to that.

(Soundbite of McCain campaign advertisement)

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Democrat, Arizona): (During imprisonment in North Korea) Lieutenant commander in the Navy.

Unidentified Man #1 (Vietcong officer): And your official number?

Senator MCCAIN: 624787.

Unidentified Man #2: John McCain. The American president Americans have been waiting for.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN: Keep that faith! Keep your courage! Stick together! Stay strong! Do not yield! Stand up! We're Americans and we'll never surrender!

MARTIN: Now, we know John McCain. He's run for president before. How will his campaign try to make him seem like a new and fresh choice?

Mr. VANDEHEI: You know, right now they are just focused on the biography. They are making sure that they play to their strengths, which is the fact that he has a very good image with the American public as a war hero and as a maverick, and they just want to amplify that at the time that Democrats are fighting. I think Bill Kristol had a piece in the New York Times this morning that's pretty smart, that he's going to have move beyond that.

The American voters do not typically vote for someone because they have a better background, or a better military profile. Think of John Kerry, Al Gore, even Bush's father in 1992. They basically look at what are you doing for me now? And what can you do for me tomorrow? And I think McCain knows that, but right now, it's all about play to your strengths while your opponents are playing to their weaknesses, and then start to build on that.

But he's going to have to build pretty quickly because he has to broaden his base. He's not fooled by these polls that show him doing very well, that his favorability is high. When people tune in and the negative ads start coming, he's got to inoculate himself so he can make a counterargument.

MARTIN: Hey, Jim, I have a favor to ask. There was a lot of news out of Iraq over the week that has changed the debate. It has put Iraq on the front-burner again. Can you stick around to answer one more question about that?

Mr. VANDEHEI: Sure, no problem.

MARTIN: We appreciate it.

STEWART: Can your kids - are they all right with that?

Mr. VANDEHEI: Would you like to interview them?

STEWART: You better check in with the knee-biters.

Mr. VANDEHEI: Maybe you guys can referee whatever feud they are having.

STEWART: All right, you've got about a minute and 30 seconds to go be referee, but we want to see you on the other side.

Mr. VANDEHEI: OK, good.

MARTIN: Stay with us.

STEWART: Hey, thank you for listening to the Bryant Park Project from NPR News. We are on digital, FM, Sirius Satellite Radio, and online at npr.org. I'm Alison Stewart.

MARTIN: And I'm Rachel Martin. We're finishing up our conversation with politico.com's Jim VandeHei, wrapping up the politics over the weekend. And Jim, there was a lot of news out of Iraq over the past week. A crackdown, a government crackdown on Shiite militias in Basra and in parts of Baghdad has put Iraq front and center in the campaign once again. Hundreds of people have died.

Now, McCain has made Iraq clearly, obviously, a centerpiece of his campaign, touting the success of the surge in reducing violence. Now, anytime there is a turn of events, or something in Iraq that undermines that thesis that he's putting forward, it's got to be a big blow for him. I mean, how does he continue to frame Iraq to his advantage?

Mr. VANDEHEI: Well, he's got to continue talking about what would be the consequences of a swift withdrawal, which Democrats are advocating, and I think most people would say the consequences could be pretty big. I think the good thing when you do have this much coverage of this new flair up of violence in Iraq, and obviously, the violence is not a good thing, but the good political part of it is that it forces a debate.

The fact that Iraq is hardly on the front pages of the biggest newspapers is something that we should be ashamed of. It is the biggest issue that is confronting the country right now, and undoubtedly the next president could inherit 100,000 plus troops, and there is going to have to be some sort of compromise that eventually gets the troops out of Iraq. I think once we get to a general election, I think there will be a very serious and sustained debate about what we actually do.

I don't think the Democrats will continue to cling to this idea that everyone can be pulled out within a year, because they know that in their heart of hearts that that's probably not workable. They certainly are going to draw down troops quicker than McCain would, but I think there's going to be a much more robust debate about what can - what do you actually do? What are the consequences?

What are the consequences for us, but also for the region? So, you are right that in the short-term every time there's violence there's a new story saying, hey, this could be bad for McCain. I think all of that is ephemeral, and what you have to do is keep your eye on the bigger debate. It's like trying to get these candidates to clarify how they deal with sort of the spillover effect of whatever policy you advocate there.

STEWART: Jim VandeHei of politico.com and parental referee, thanks Jim.

Mr. VANDEHEI: Thank you. Enjoy the day. Bye.

STEWART: Let's get to some news headlines.

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