Obama, Clinton Push for Votes, Superdelegates

Obama publicly denounces his former pastor Jeremiah Wright, both Democratic candidates try to gain ground in North Carolina and Indiana; and the nation marks five years since President Bush declared "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq. Reporter David Lightman and columnist David Sirota discuss these and other stories from the week in politics.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News.

Coming up, another perspective on the conflict between Democratic presidential hopeful, Barack Obama and his former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. We'll talk with two members of the clergy for our Friday Faith Matters conversation. But first, our regular Friday political chat.

It's been a very interesting week. We are going to talk about the political implications of the Obama/Wright story, and we're facing two primaries on the Democratic side. Both Indiana and North Carolina vote next Tuesday. Hillary Clinton has been gaining ground in both states giving her a chance to catch up to Barack Obama in both the delegate and popular vote count. But on the other hand, Clinton lost a key superdelegate this week when former Democratic National Committee Chairman, Joe Andrew, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton to the post, announced he would support Obama. And, it's the fifth anniversary of Mr. Bush's announcement that it was mission accomplished in Iraq. Clearly, it isn't. What's the fallout?

Here to talk about this are two very key political David's. Syndicated columnist, David Sirota and White House correspondent for McClatchy, David Lightman.

Welcome to both of the David's. Thank you for coming in.

Mr. DAVID LIGHTMAN (White House Correspondent, McClatchy): Thank you.

Mr. DAVID SIROTA (Nationally Syndicated Columnist): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: David Sirota, you have a broader theory about how the issue of race is playing out in this campaign. I want to ask you about that in a minute. But first, I want to ask you what effect you think the Reverend Wright controversy may be having on the ground in North Carolina and Indiana. I should mention that nationally, Senator Obama's poll numbers are down six points. In a new CNN national poll, he is at 46 percent, Senator Clinton is at 45 percent, that's a statistical dead heat. Of course those are the national numbers. You think that's the Reverend Wright controversy playing itself out?

Mr. SIROTA: I think it's something broader. I think it's that Barack Obama is now seen as more of a regular politician, as opposed to being somebody who has risen above it or has been floating above regular politics. I think the Reverend Wright's controversy has helped bring him into that regular politician mode. I also think, and we can discuss it a little more, I think that the Reverend Wright controversy deals a lot with race, even though race is unspoken in some ways in that controversy.

I think that it has been used by the Clinton campaign to reiterate that Barack Obama is a black candidate, I mean, not that that's not obvious. But to reiterate that he is a black candidate, with the hope of, I think, generating a somewhat of a white backlash. It happened in Pennsylvania, I think it happened in Ohio, and I think that the Clinton campaign is banking on it happening in Indiana and North Carolina.

MARTIN: David Lightman, as I understand it, you're joining us from Indiana right now, right?

Mr. LIGHTMAN: Yes, that's right I'm in Indianapolis.

MARTIN: What are your impressions?

Mr. LIGHTMAN: Well, a lot of people I've talked to all week here in the state, will tell you, yes, they are concerned about the Reverend Wright. They don't like it. They'll give you, frankly, good on the record material saying that Obama sat in that church for 20 years, they'll say, why didn't he walk out? But a lot of those people, maybe all of those people I talked to, weren't going to vote for Obama anyway. So I'm not sure how much impact it has on the race.

There's a figure out this morning from the Zogby poll, something like 21 percent of those surveyed said Wright has an impact, but again, I'm not sure it has an impact on switching people. I've had a hard time finding that. This race seems to be too close to call. I think Zogby had it 42-42 this morning. Finding an unusual number of undecideds, and one of the things we are trying to examine today in our reporting is just what is going to push these people over the edge one way or the other. It's very, very hard to discern.

MARTIN: David Sirota, you've been writing about something called the race chasm. Tell me what that is.

Mr. SIROTA: Well, Barack Obama has been able to win most of the states that are less than six percent black, or more than 17 percent black, their populations. Hillary Clinton has won about 80 percent of her states in what I call, the race chasm. Which is those states between above six percent black populations and below 17 percent black populations. And, you know, these are states, Pennsylvania is a good example, Ohio is a good example. And my theory, although you can never really prove definitively any of this stuff, there are so many different factors. But the numbers over 33 primary contests are so pronounced in this chasm, that my theory is that in states where there is a very, very small black population, black/white politics does not gain real traction.

Racial politics is not as much of a deal with the daily political dialogue. It doesn't really work there. Above 17 percent black, sure there's certainly racial politics. A lot of these are deep South states. But the black population is large enough to overcome a potentially racially motivated white vote. It's in that chasm, between 6 percent and 17 percent black, where the Clinton campaign, I think, has used controversies like the Reverend Wright controversy to potentially racially motivate a white vote. I mean, you had 20 percent or 19 percent of Pennsylvania voters saying that they thought race was a major factor in their own vote. And that included, I think, 14 percent of the white vote.

So the idea is, that in that chasm, the racially motivated white vote, there's not enough black voters to overcome or offset a racially-motivated white vote. So I think that that chasm is something that has to do, very fundamentally, with racial politics.

MARTIN: Well, in Pennsylvania, of the people that said that race was a factor in their vote, I think something like, three quarters voted for Hillary Clinton, but are there people for whom, they might say, you know what, I think a black president might be good for the country. So race is a factor in my vote, but not necessarily in a bad way.

Mr. SIROTA: Oh, certainly.

MARTIN: Or a negative way. Racist way.

Mr. SIROTA: Certainly. Absolutely, no attempt here - am I trying to make an attempt here to imply that any white voter who votes against Barack Obama is voting on racial grounds or vice versa. But the point is here, over 33 elections, this trend, this chasm, is so pronounced. I mean, I think it's 80, it' 83 percent of Hillary Clintons states that she's won, are in this chasm, and then you couple it with numbers like those exit polls out of Pennsylvania, which by the way, were very similar to exit polls out of Ohio and Texas, where people said, race is a major factor in my vote. And remember, if somebody, if a poll respondent is actually saying that, if you've 19, 20 percent of people saying that, most experts will tell you that that means the number is usually much higher, because those are only the people who are admitting that race is a part of their vote.

MARTIN: OK. Let's let David Lightman back in. David?

Mr. LIGHTMAN: I think there are a couple of factors that may be unique to Indiana that you have to consider. Number one, this is a state that has never had this kind, not never, but has rarely had this kind of attention showered on it. The last time it had a significant primary, I believe, was 1968. And even in a general election, candidates tend to skip this state. They don't run a lot of ads. It's sort of a safe Republican state. So all of a sudden, boom! People like me are running around to their diners and shopping malls begging them for their opinion. So I think that they are taking a little more time to think it through. To think about this, and race is a factor, but I don't know, maybe in the end it will break like Pennsylvania, but I'm not sure of that yet.

MARTIN: OK.

Mr. LIGHTMAN: Number two. Keep in mind the geography here. A lot of Indiana borders Illinois. So, a lot of people in this state see Obama differently. They've been watching him for three and a half years as a senator, and arguably before that as a legislator. So that, I think, also takes away a little bit of the race equation. It makes it all a little more difficult to predict.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm talking politics with the David's, a veteran journalist, McClatchy White House correspondent, David Lightman, and syndicated columnist David Sirota. What do you make of the former DNC Chairman, Joe Andrew, switching his superdelegate support from Clinton to Obama? David Sirota?

Mr. SIROTA: Well, I think it shows where the race is going. I mean, I think everyone like to be on the bandwagon of a front-runner, and I think we have to remember that Barack Obama still is the frontrunner here.

MARTIN: Yeah, I was going to say, yeah, but he's having a horrible week.

Mr. SIROTA: Sure, but most people will tell you that there's not really - they don't think there's really a chance for Hillary Clinton to win in the pledged delegates. Look, I think it's certainly a boost for Barack Obama, and I certainly think it's a boost in Indiana where Andrew's name is probably somewhat known.

But I want to just say one thing about David's comment. I agree that Indiana is very different. One of the ways it's also very different, and I know this, I've got family in Indiana, I'm there all the time - is that southern Indiana is actually more, in many ways, like the south, much more like Kentucky than it is like the industrialized upper Midwest. And I think that is where race really, in that region in particular, is where race could really play a factor.

MARTIN: I'm going to move to the other side of the aisle here. David Lightman, this is the fifth anniversary of President Bush's dramatic landing - well, yesterday was - dramatic landing on an aircraft carrier where he hung a banner claiming mission accomplished in the Iraq War campaign. Some Iraq War veterans did some demonstrations around the country to, sort of, call attention to what they consider are failures of the administration's prosecution of this war.

How much of - I'm just wondering because you cover the White House, how much of the - what's the atmosphere like there now? And the other thing I'm so curious about is that the polls show that President Bush is the most unpopular president in modern history, and it's - what does that - how does that feel being part of that administration at a time like this?

Mr. LIGHTMAN: Yeah, it's a strange feeling. I was at that Rose Garden press conference the other day, and obviously you respect the president, you respect the institution. But you just - I don't want to say you get the feeling this presidency's over, because it still has, what, seven, eight months to go. And he's still arguably the most powerful person in the world. But yeah, there's almost the sense I think that there's nothing more they can do. I mean, they've got their position, the Democratic Congress has its position on the war. And even out here in the Indianas, Pennsylvanias, Ohios, you know, I don't find so much voter anger anymore over the war. I find almost sadness, disappointment, like let's move on, let's get it over with. It's a strange mood.

MARTIN: And yet, you know, only - yesterday's Wall Street Journal/NBC poll says only 27 percent of voters have positive views of the Republican Party. But the article also points out that McCain's still running about even against either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. What's up with that?

Mr. LIGHTMAN: Well, as a matter of fact, this is a story we're working on. You're very timely! And that is particularly in Clinton crowds. You say to people, if Clinton doesn't get it, would you consider McCain? You say that to Obama voters as well, but you find fewer of them willing to consider McCain. And David was talking about people in southern Indiana. David, I was in Jeffersonville, down near the Kentucky border yesterday. Boy, a lot of these Clinton voters say, I'll consider McCain. Then the next question is wait a minute, they're at opposite sides on the war, on social issues, how do you reconcile that? And it's interesting. They say, well, we trust McCain. He's got experience. He'll do the right thing. So this is a problem Democrats could face in the fall.

MARTIN: Thirty seconds, David Sirota, literally.

Mr. SIROTA: I absolutely agree. I think that John McCain in the general election will try to become the John McCain of 2000. I think people still remember that and the question for McCain about whether he could win against either of these candidates is whether he can resurrect the John McCain of 2000 or whether he's the John McCain of 2008, the John McCain, sort of, relative or close ally of George Bush. That's the question for him.

MARTIN: All right. Good questions. Syndicated columnist David Sirota joined us from Denver, and David Lightman, White House correspondent for McClatchy joined us from Indianapolis. I thank you both.

Mr. LIGHTMAN: Thank you.

Mr. SIROTA: Thanks for having us.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Just ahead, we've been hearing so much this week about back preaching, that black preaching is different. So how are people of other faiths reacting to what they heard? I'm Michel Martin. Our Faith Matters conversation is coming up next on Tell Me More from NPR News.

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