Candidates Prepare for Petraeus' Iraq Report

Gen. David Petraeus

Gen. David Petraeus responds to reporters' questions during a news conference March 17, 2008, in Baghdad. Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

This week Gen. David Petraeus is set to tell Congress about the state of military operations in Iraq. Politico.com editor John Harris says the McCain, Clinton and Obama presidential campaigns are getting to respond.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

General David Petraeus is heading to Capitol Hill this week, and he may be heading into a political maelstrom of sorts. Senators McCain, Clinton, and Obama, you've heard of them. They all sit on committees that will hear from Petraeus about the status of military operations on the ground in Iraq, and his recommendations for future troop levels.

Now, while Obama and Clinton battle each other for the Democratic nomination, they keep lambasting Republican McCain for his now-infamous statement implying that U.S. troops could be in Iraq for 100 years. This weekend on "Fox Sunday Morning," Senator McCain tried again to clarify himself.

(Soundbite of TV show "Fox Sunday Morning")

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): I was in an exchange with a voter in New Hampshire, town hall meeting, the kind of the exchanges that I enjoy most, and he said how long are you going to be there? I said it could be 100 years, but it's a matter of U.S. casualties.

And we have presence in countries like South Korea, Japan, et cetera, et cetera. So it's very clear, and Senator Obama and anyone who reads that knows that I didn't think we were in a 100-year war.

STEWART: So that issue still lingers. More have popped up over the weekend. Hillary Clinton released her tax records Friday night, and yesterday, her senior strategist, Mark Penn, left the campaign. And Barack Obama, he's courting the pro-gun vote. We're going to talk all about it with our friend John Harris, Politico.com's editor. Hey, John. Thanks for being with us.

Mr. JOHN HARRIS (Editor, Politico.com): Hey, good morning. Busy day in politics.

STEWART: Good morning. I know! So much exciting stuff.

Mr. HARRIS: They're all busy these days.

STEWART: Let's start, before we get to Mark Penn, which is top-of-mind for a lot of folks, let us drill back and talk about Iraq. The rhetoric on both sides on the war has reached a fevered pitch. What awaits Petraeus this week when he gets to Capitol Hill?

Mr. HARRIS: Well, Democrats want to avoid a repeat of the last time Petraeus came to town, when he did end up bolstering President Bush's position that the surge was working and that more patience in Iraq is needed. And so they're really going to try to put the focus on military readiness.

That's one new argument then - not a new argument, but familiar argument that Democrats are investing new home in, that the Iraq War is really draining our military, that this can't be continued.

And then they're also going to say, look, whatever military success is being enjoyed over there, we're still far, far from any kind of political success in Iraq, and a drawdown needs to happen. This is a hopeless cause. This is what Democrats want people to conclude from the Petraeus visit.

STEWART: And I mean, he is going to talk a lot about troop levels, right? And this is something that both Obama and Clinton have come out and said that troop levels should not necessarily be reduced.

Mr. HARRIS: Right, and we expect Petraeus to say that, look, they need to stay at roughly their current levels for the indeterminate future.

STEWART: OK, let's talk campaign nitty-gritty. Mark Penn, Hillary Clinton's senior strategist, he left the campaign. Now, the context - we're supposed to believe this is about his dealings with Colombia, of all things. This seems kind of random. What's going on here?

Mr. HARRIS: What's going on is that Mark Penn was always an unpopular figure with many of his colleagues inside the campaign, except he had two very high-level supporters. One was Bill Clinton. The other was Hillary Clinton. So that's enough to win a lot of internal arguments.

The Clintons themselves lost patience with him when it came out that, after assuring the campaign that he had given up most of his private business, he was working for his public relations firm Burson-Marsteller on the Colombia account. They want to get a free trade agreement passed with the United States. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are opposed to this, so this was really ill-timed.

STEWART: Now, his departure, though, had been rumored for awhile. I remember hearing from some kind of folks who run in those circles down in D.C. that he'd been distancing himself to a certain degree for weeks.

Mr. HARRIS: Well, look, Mark Penn, I've known for many years. He is a brilliant strategist, but he is - his colleagues see him as somebody who is often brilliantly self-protective, wants to embrace any success and distance himself from any failure.

He gave a really damaging interview to the Los Angeles Times a month or so ago, where he made it seem as though he was just a bystander to the campaign and other people were calling the shots. And of course, he's been the most important strategist for Hillary Clinton for the last several years. It really rubbed people the wrong way.

STEWART: OK, so does it matter? How does it affect Clinton's campaign?

Mr. HARRIS: Look, it's a little bit late for Hillary Clinton to have a new strategy. We're really in the fourth quarter here. It will, I think, make a more harmonious campaign, because Penn was seen as such a divisive figure, and I think it will add strength to those who say, what Hillary Clinton needs to do above all is show her warmer, more-human side.

Penn didn't put any stock in that. He said, look, what voters care about is issues. They care about experience. They care about strength. And this was an ongoing debate. Do you show Hillary Clinton as the most-experienced, most-commanding figure, or the more-human, more-approachable, figure?

STEWART: Staying on the Clinton campaign trail, she released her tax statements Friday night.

Mr. HARRIS: They made a lot of money.

STEWART: Yeah, they did! But is that really surprising? These are folks who've had very lucrative book deals. Was there anything in there, John, that you raise an eyebrow at?

Mr. HARRIS: There were some surprises in the details. For example, Bill Clinton's memoir, it had always been written he had got about 10 to 12 million dollars for it, and it turns out it was 15 million dollars. We knew it was a bundle.

Turns out to be an even bigger bundle than we expected. We've all speculated about, how much money does he make from speeches? We knew it was a lot. Turns out it is a boatload, almost 50 million over the last seven or eight years.

STEWART: Pays to be an ex-president. So - but the question becomes, if you're courting blue-collar voters, and all of a sudden you find out you're making 15 kabillion jillion dollars a book, is that going to have any impact?

Mr. HARRIS: No, I don't think so. I mean, there's been poll after poll over many years that show that people in the middle classes don't begrudge people who have a lot of money. They hope to someday have a lot of money themselves, and so you know, never hurt the Kennedys that they were rich, and yet tried to speak for the poor and the middle class. I don't think this will have a big impact on Hillary Clinton either.

STEWART: John, before I let you go, I want to ask you about a report in Politico about Barack Obama's outreach, or so it seems, to the pro-gun lobby. The article quoted an email that was sent by the Obama campaign to the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs, and the email said that the campaign would, quote, "appreciate all sportsmen taking time to learn the facts.

"Our candidate strongly supports the right and tradition of sportsmen through Pennsylvania and the United States of America." He has a long history of backing gun control legislation, but he's apparently decided he can make some gains within this constituency.

Mr. HARRIS: He not only feels like he can make some gains. He feels like he has to. There's example after example over many years of just how big the gun issue is with rural voters. If they think you're trying to take away their guns, that's the end of the argument. It killed Al Gore, for instance, in West Virginia, and his home state of Tennessee in 2000.

Obama knows that he's got a lot of ground to make up with this group already, so he's trying to do everything he can to assure them that look, I'm not trying to take away, you know, your deer-hunting guns. You can kill all the deer you want. It's essentially, you know, we're accustomed to white politicians having black outreach.

They go into the churches and what-not. This is a black politician doing white outreach, trying to reassure these rural white voters, who have not been receptive to his candidacy, that look, he's not the threatening figure they might assume.

STEWART: OK, April 22nd, all eyes on Pennsylvania. John Harris, editor of Politico.com, thanks for being with us, as always.

Mr. HARRIS: Talk to you soon.

STEWART: Have a good day.

Mr. HARRIS: Bye-bye.

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