Obama, Clinton Square Off in Keystone State
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Just ahead, we'll review Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the U.S., his first, as leader of the Roman Catholic Church. He had strong words about abusive behavior by the clergy and met with victims. Plus, we'll hear from some of the faithful who attended the Mass in Washington. But first, politics.
Next Tuesday is the Democratic presidential primary election in Pennsylvania. It's all hands on deck in the Keystone State for the next four days. Senators Obama and Clinton debated on Wednesday night. It was the 21st Democratic debate. Yes, you heard me right, that's 21 debates.
Did it change any minds? Answering the big political questions with us today are veteran political reporter and Washington Post editorial page columnist David Broder, and Philadelphia Inquirer editorial page editor Harold Jackson. I am so pleased to have both of you with us today.
Mr. HAROLD JACKSON (Editorial Page Editor, Philadelphia Inquirer): Glad to be here, Michel.
MARTIN: Hi, David. OK, well, maybe David will be with us in a minute. As we mentioned, Mr. Jackson, only four days left until the Pennsylvania primary, both campaigns are pulling out the stops. Pennsylvania has always been big state with lots of delegates, but you're not used to playing such a pivotal role in the election. Are you sensing that? What are you seeing on the ground?
Mr. JACKSON: Oh, most definitely. You know, Pennsylvania moved its primary up. It's usually later in the pack, and so by the time Pennsylvanians get to vote, it's all decided. It is not decided at this point. You have a very energetic campaign between Mrs. Clinton and Senator Obama, and you know, people are real excited. The debate the other evening just really raised the excitement to another level.
MARTIN: Mr. Broder, you just spent some time in Pennsylvania talking to voters. You wrote a column called "What Pennsylvania Voters Are Saying." What are they saying?
Mr. DAVID S. BRODER (Editorial Page Columnist, Washington Post): Well, they're preoccupied, as with almost all voters I have talked to across the country this year, are with two issues, the economy and what it's doing to them and their families, and second, the war in Iraq. But they're also been really caught up by this fact that they've had now almost six weeks of almost undivided attention from the two Democratic candidates. So they've been given, perhaps, more exposure than any voters since New Hampshire.
MARTIN: You wrote in your column, you said, that it's obvious that all the campaign time the candidates have lavished on Pennsylvania since Ohio and Texas voted for Clinton and McCain on March 4th has fueled more doubts than enthusiasm. David, you've been doing this for so long. Is that typical or not?
Mr. BRODER: No, I think it's not typical and that's why I was struck by it. I should note that I was working in a suburban area of Philadelphia where the voters tend to be ticket-splitters, more independent, and so it's not surprising that they would be, perhaps, more up-in-the-air than if you were in an areas of hardcore Democratic support or hardcore Republican support, you'd probably find a different mix.
But these voters are the ones who have historically cast the deciding ballots in Pennsylvania elections. And that's why I went to that area and what I found there was a growing skepticism, particularly among the Democrats, about which candidate to vote for and what vulnerabilities they now see these candidates as having.
MARTIN: Speaking of vulnerabilities, the debate Wednesday night certainly explored those vulnerabilities. A lot of questions that spoke to elect ability, which of the Democrats is best positioned to beat John McCain in the fall.
I think the consensus is that Senator Obama was on the defensive for most of the evening, and there was one particular issue that came up that seemed to, I don't know, get on a lot of people's goat. His association with William Ayers, the founder of the Weather Underground. It was a radical anti-government group in the '60s. This is what Senator Clinton had to say about this.
(Soundbite of ABC News Democratic presidential debate)
Senator HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (Democrat, New York): And if I'm not mistaken, that relationship with Mr. Ayers, on this board, continued after 9/11 and after his reported comments, which were deeply hurtful to people in New York. You know, I think it is, again, an issue that people will be asking about and I have no doubt - I know Senator Obama's a good man, and I respect him greatly, but I think that this is an issue that certainly the Republicans will be raising.
MARTIN: And of course, Senator Obama answered, saying it was ridiculous to tie him to every person that's he's ever met, with whom he's had maybe a casual relationship with. Mr. Jackson first, do you think this is a legitimate line of inquiry? And secondly, do you think that it raised questions about Senator Obama's electability?
Mr. JACKSON: Well, I don't think the question is going to last too long in the public's mind, but I think the level of questioning, the range of questioning about Mr. Obama's background will stick in people's minds for this reason. I think that the answers were not that significant really, to voters, but I think his reaction to the questioning is. And you know, Barack Obama is getting a lot of credit for being a great communicator, a great speaker, and some even compare him to Ronald Reagan, who was called "the great communicator," the greatest communicator.
But there is one glaring difference in this debate, and we can remember the 1980 debate with Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, and again in the 1984 debate with Walter Mondale, where they both pressed him, Carter, on the Medicare issue and Reagan's retort was, "There you go again." And that stuck with voters.
And in the 1984 debate with Mondale, when Mondale was expected to question Reagan about age he took the advantage and instead began the conversation by saying he was not going to make an issue of Mondale's age. So, you didn't see any of that from Barack Obama. This (unintelligible), this ability to have the quick retort or to anticipate questioning. He seemed really flustered and bothered by this debate, and I think his demeanor may hurt him more than the actual questions.
MARTIN: David, what do you think?
Mr. BRODER: I think probably the Ayers issue is much less damaging to Obama, over time, than his association with his former pastor, Reverend Wright. There is no equivalent of those tapes of Reverend Wright's sermons, in the case of Mr. Ayers. His name is not familiar to most people.
There is nothing that he has done in the last 40 years that raises any questions about his own loyalty to the country or good citizenship. So I don't see that as a big problem for Obama, but I do think that the Wright issue, which was also raised in the debate, is one that he will probably be dealing with as long as he is running for president.
Mr. JACKSON: I would have to agree with that as well. It's something that certainly has had an impact on the Pennsylvania campaign. Senator Obama was really making some inroads in terms of getting some of that blue-collar white vote in the western part of the state and once that comment was made, you know, there was a retrenchment, and I think that will affect him in other similar blue-collar white areas across the country.
MARTIN: If you are just joining us, I'm speaking with Harold Jackson, editorial page editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, and David Broder, veteran political columnist with the Washington Post. What about Senator Clinton's honesty issue?
The recent numbers show that she is viewed as honest and a poll by ABC News and the Washington Post said that Clinton is viewed as honest and trustworthy by just 39 percent of Americans, according to the new Washington Post/ABC News poll, compared with 52 percent in May of 2006. Now some people are saying, gee, that kind of hardball campaigning is taking a toll on her. But David, I wanted to ask you, does she have an electability problem?
Mr. BRODER: I'm sorry, who were you asking?
MARTIN: I'm sorry, asking you, David.
Mr. BRODER: Oh, she has very much of an electability problem. She's had a hardcore of opposition as measured in polling and on any number of conversations that I've had with voters over the last year. And now, I think the skepticism about her truthfulness and her candor is measurably greater. She paid a big price for fibbing about that landing in Bosnia, where she said she had to duck and run because she was under sniper fire.
That's the kind of incident, particularly when its - there's tape of what really happened there, which was a normal kind of welcoming ceremony, that really sticks in voters' minds. And her explanations of that, including the one on Wednesday night in the debate, are just not very plausible.
MARTIN: Harold, actually, I wanted to ask you about a story that the LA Times did last week about street money. Now, that's money that's typically paid by campaigns to, you know, party leaders, worried bosses, if you will, for their get out the vote efforts. Now, the Times story said that the Obama campaign says it won't pay out street money. And some of the, sort of, political leaderships are saying that that's just going to kill him. Do you think that that's true?
Mr. JACKSON: Well, actually, both campaigns have said they won't pay street money. The Clinton campaign has said it as well. But, you know, even though the campaigns themselves don't provide street money, that doesn't mean there won't be some money that's involved in getting the vote out.
I think that Barack Obama is counting on the fact that he is an African-American candidate and within the city of Philadelphia, where there's a 44 percent black population, that just the viability of his campaign, the possibility of electing a black president, will overcome any disadvantages of not giving out street money.
MARTIN: But the mayor is supporting Senator Clinton.
Mr. JACKSON: He is. The mayor is a very popular mayor. He is actually popular for being a mayor of change, sort of Barack Obama for Philadelphia. So it's interesting to people to see that he has not supported the Senator. The mayor is also a ward leader, so I guess he'll be out there doing his part to get his ward out in support of Hillary Clinton. So, you know, it's going to be a very interesting dynamic.
I think that black people in Philadelphia, like black people everywhere, do feel a real kinship to Barack Obama, and it will come out. That does not mean it will come out in terms of everyone voting for Barack Obama. Most polls show that about 75 percent of black Pennsylvanians support Senator Obama. So there's at least 25 percent out there, and maybe a lesser percentage in the city, that won't vote for it.
MARTIN: And finally, David Broder, I have only a minute left. I wanted to ask you, do you that the Pope's visit affects the presidential race in any way? Even though the Pope does not - has not been making, sort of, overtly political statements. Do you think it changes anything? The temperature, the water?
Mr. BRODER: I think he's been very careful not to let himself be drawn into anything that could be regarded as political in the narrow sense. And judging from the reactions here in Washington to his visit, it was very meaningful in religious terms, but I don't see that it has much direct political fallout.
MARTIN: All right. Thank you. Veteran political reporter David Broder joined us from his home. We were also joined by Harold Jackson, editorial page editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. He was at WHYY in Philadelphia. Thank you, gentlemen, so much.
Mr. BRODER: Take good care.
Mr. JACKSON: Thank you, Michel.
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