Political Junkie: Moving On to the General Election

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Sen. Barack Obama secured enough delegates on Tuesday to clinch the Democratic nomination for president. NPR Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving is this week's guest Political Junkie and talks about the end of the presidential primaries and the start of the general elections.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington, broadcasting today from the new Newseum in Washington D.C., in the night's studios and here are the headlines from some of the stories we're following at NPR News today.

CONAN: And I'm just shuffling my papers here at the Newseum until I get to the right piece. Here it is. The last night of the Primary Campaign - the two presumptive nominees unleashed their first - am not, are so exchange of the general election. Both parties considered the bottom of the ticket and senate races get set in New Jersey and New Mexico it's time for the latest edition of The Political Junkie.

Former President RONALD REAGAN: There you go again.

Former Representative GERALDINE FERRARO (Democrat, New York): My name is Geraldine Ferraro.

Former Vice President WALTER MONDALE: When I hear your ideas, I'm reminded of that ad, "Where's the Beef?"

Former President RICHARD NIXON: You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore.

Senator JOHN KERRY (Democrat, Massachusetts): I'm John Kerry and I'm reporting for duty.

(Soundbite of applause)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: But I'm the decider.

(Soundbite of Howard Dean scream)

CONAN: As we mentioned earlier, Ken Rudin is off today. He's graduating from high school.

RON ELVING: Well.

CONAN: His son Michael is, congratulations Michael. But NPR senior editor Ron Elving has graciously agreed to be our guest junkie, today. If you have questions about the end of the primaries and the start of the general, about perspective Vice presidents, the politics of the Jewish vote, as Senators, McCain, Obama and Clinton all address the APEC Conference here in Washington.

Our phone number is (800) 989-8222, email us at talkatnpr.org and you can also weigh in on our blog which is at npr.org/blogofthenation and well, really, in honor of Ken Rudin we're going to skip right across that presidential election stuff and get started with the United States Senate, a little counter intuitive here.

There were a couple of very interesting primaries, yesterday. In New Jersey on the Democratic side and New Mexico on the Republican side, why don't we start in New Jersey?

ELVING: Up in New Jersey and let me just start by saying - you know, we all miss Ken and we're disturbed that he would display such a scud set of priorities.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ELVING: As to blow of this show to attend his son's high school graduation. Up in New Jersey, Frank Lautenberg is the Senior Senator from, New Jersey. Although he's had a little interruption between his terms, he's running for re-election this year. He is 84 years old, and he was challenged in the primary yesterday by one of the members of the House Delegation, who is not so subtle sending along the message that perhaps it would be time for the Senior Senator to move on. And for opportunity be created for one of his younger colleagues. But that was not the view of the Democratic primary voters in New Jersey who came out pretty strongly for Frank.

CONAN: Just about two to one.

ELVING: Yes. So he will be once again the Democratic nominee, the State of New Jersey. And recently statewide elections in New Jersey have been quite dominated by the Democratic Party and I don't think anyone thinks Frank's in any serious trouble this fall. And when he returns he'll be joining a - a contingent of Senators' who are over 75 years old, and have served a great number of terms. So he won't be alone in that. He's not even close to being the eldest senator.

CONAN: No, he'll be facing a former Republican Congressman Dick Zimmer in November. On the Republican side, in New Mexico to fill the seat of Republican Pete Domenici, who's retiring due to ill health and there a moderate Republican sort of, well dubbed the successor by Senator Domenici.

ELVING: Yes.

CONAN: A loss to a more conservative Republican.

ELVING: Yes, Heather Wilson who's been a Congresswoman for a number of years had a military career before that - has been a big favorite of moderate Republicans in New Mexico. Pete Domenici who had a long history in conservative Republican politics, but who is perhaps seen as being moved - somewhat to the center in recent years, had endorsed Heather Wilson. Had helped sponsor her career to a large degree, but she was challenged by one of the other congressmen, the other Republican Congressman from New Mexico, Steve Pearce who is much more conservative, and they had quite a knockdown, drag out throughout the spring and in the end Steve Pearce - has prevailed. So, Heather Wilson's political career will be coming to at least a temporary end.

CONAN: And he will run-off in November against Democrat, Tom Udall. Would this make Udall the favorite, at this point?

ELVING: Tom Udall has been running ahead in polls ahead of either of the two Republican candidates and I think a lot will depend on how Heather Wilson's supporters turn around in November and whether or not they rally to Pearce's banner. If they don't, if they see themselves better represented on the Democratic side, this could be a tough race for the Republicans. And by the way if Mr. Udall were to be elected, he also has a cousin, Mark Udall, running in Colorado also as a Democrat, and their third - a third cousin within the same family, Gordon Smith, is already in the Senate as a Republican senator from Oregon and he's on the ballot this fall as well.

CONAN: And of course...

ELVING: And we'll see how many of these cousins all get back here after November.

CONAN: And many people of course remember Mo Udall very fondly of course.

ELVING: Yes, absolutely, the sainted Morris Udall from the State of Arizona also a member of the same family.

CONAN: As we mentioned Senators Obama and Clinton spoke this morning at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, AIPAC, the conference being held right down the street from NPR as a matter of fact. After their speeches the two run into each other backstage, and back on Capitol Hill Senator Obama summed up the conversation they had with NPR's David Welna.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): I just spoke to her today, and we're going to be having a conversation in the coming weeks. I am very confident about how unified the Democratic Party is going to be to win in November. You know it wasn't a detailed conversation as I said, I am very confident about how we're going to be able to bring this party together.

CONAN: And David Welna then went on to ask Senator Obama about what's it like to be the first African American presidential candidate of a major party.

Senator OBAMA: Obviously it's an enormous honor. It's very humbling. You think about the - all the people who had to knock down barriers for me to walk through this door and the challenges they went through were so much more difficult and so much more severe. And the risks they took were so much greater. I've heard from a number of people already that - both black and white that their kids seven, eight, nine years old, take for granted now that of course a black can run for president, of course a woman can run for president. There's a matter of factness to it that I think bodes well for the future.

CONAN: And that's Senator Obama in a conversation with NPR's David Welna on Capitol Hill following his speech at the AIPAC conference earlier today, and as he told his conversation with Senator Hillary Clinton who is also in Washington to speak there, and to attend to her day job as a senator from the State of New York. And Ron Elving that reflection there at the end reminds us just what a historic night it was last night.

ELVING: Reporters go all through their lives asking the same questions over and over of largely the same people. And it's rare that you get to ask a question you've never asked before. But there was a chance for David Welna running into the senator in the hallway to say what does it feel like to be the first African-American nominated for president by a major party. And he could have just as easily been asking that question of course to Hillary Clinton as the first woman.

CONAN: And fascinating either way. Nevertheless let's get to the politics of what they were doing this morning, maybe not Senator Clinton so much, but Senator Obama sort of revising his diplomatic plans to speak with Iran.

ELVING: Yes, and this has been, if you will, a policy in evolution right from the first time that it came up during one of the debates, one of the earliest debates between all the Democratic candidates back when they needed a stage as large as this riser here in the studio, to get all the Democratic candidates for president together back in 2007.

That particular debate, the issue was raised of whether or not you should be negotiating with the heads of countries that have been hostile to the United States, or have had interests perceived to be at odds with ours, or more particular to this case, at odds with those of Israel. And that would of course include organizations that are outside the regular state structure such as Hamas or Hezbollah, and for any implication to be raised that an American leader, particularly the American president, might sit down with such people or such leaders without the precondition of their agreeing to change their behavior, and specifically their hostile implacable opposition to the State of Israel.

That has been in the past pretty much anathema in American politics. If you wanted to run for president that was a very risky position to take. So when Barack Obama took that position last year, Hillary Clinton pounced on him immediately and said she wouldn't be in that ballpark.

CONAN: And now Senator McCain has pounced on and pounced and pounced and pounced again last night in his speech in Louisiana.

ELVING: Yes and although the view that Obama took that there should be no one in the United States - no one in the world, that the United States feared to talk to. Of course he makes reference back to Jack Kennedy saying we should never negotiate out of fear, but we should never fear to negotiate, he does make reference to that quite often. And while he has evolved his position, he still basically believes that we should not begin a relationship with anybody in the world no matter how implacable they may seem, by saying we're not going to talk to you.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers on the line. We're back to our old number, (800) 989-8255. And let's talk with Ali. Ali is with us from Chicago.

ALI (Caller): Hi, good afternoon Neal. I've got a question for Mr. Ron Elving. It's about - I've been hearing a lot on the talk shows and radio talk shows, especially conservative, they're really fainting and fawning over the name of Bobby Jindal. I just want to ask Ron Elving if - what lawmaking experience or any major accomplishments does this gentleman have for the Republicans to consistently throw out his name out there. It seems like - are they being hypocrite? On one side they criticize Obama, but on the same hand they want to top up someone who - that I haven't literally heard of before he run for the governorship.

CONAN: Well there's one big difference and nobody ever calls and asks for a question for Mr. Rudin, but any Ron?

(Soundbite of laughter)

ELVING: Bobby Jindal is a phenomenal young man who is just 36 years old, but who has already run the medical and healthcare system for the state of Louisiana, in fact parleying that into becoming the governor of the state of Louisiana. He first got interested in medical care as an issue when he was a staff member here on the hill and thinking about going to medical school.

He blew off the medical school and decided to go into healthcare policy full time as I say, took over the system in his mid 20s in the State of Louisiana, later on became the head of the university, OSU, big university, big state university in Louisiana, and still as a very young man went on to run for congress in his early 20s and now to be elected governor of Louisiana. As I say he's exactly 36. It's been observed that when you put him on the very short list of people that John McCain is considering to be his vice president, he would be the first vice presidential nominee to be exactly half the age of the presidential nominee.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ELVING: And that may not be a contrast that they really want. He has not had the kind of legislative accomplishments let's say, that John McCain has had over a much longer career in Congress, and because during his time in Congress he has not attached his name to any major legislation and he's just taking over now as the governor of Louisiana. Probably his biggest accomplishment would be the moves that he has made in the direction of eliminating corruption in Louisiana politics. That's supposed to be a laugh line actually.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ELVING: He's tried to begin the process of cleaning up the ethics of much of the governmental structure in Louisiana and that is an Augean task that I think will probably occupy him throughout his governorship.

CONAN: Ali thanks very much for the call. We're talking with guest political junkie Ron Elving, NPR's senior Washington editor. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. Let's get a question from here in the Newseum.

Ms. JAN DOKE (Audience Member): Hi my name is Jan Doke (ph), I'm from Portland, Connecticut and I was wondering given Hillary Clinton's broad popularity amongst female voters across the political spectrum, what do you think the odds are that John McCain is going to consider a female for a vice president like for example, Susan Collins of Maine. Thank you.

ELVING: Well, it's a wonderful question, and I think we've heard John McCain already in the last 48 hours reaching out quite directly to women voters. He has a number of spokespersons, people who are sometimes called surrogates who are also doing this for him. One is Carly Fiorina who is the former chief executive of Hewlett Packard. There are some other women who have had top level positions in business, the woman who headed up Ebay for example, tremendously successful self made women who have been campaigning for John McCain.

And they're clearly reaching out to women who have identified with Hillary Clinton and her career and suggesting that there's a home for them in the Republican Party and particularly in supporting John McCain. Whether or not he puts a particular woman on his ticket is another question. I have pushed the idea that he would look at all of the different women senators and some of the women in the House of Representatives, some of the women governors in the Republican party and one of them that he might turn to would be Kay Bailey Hutchison from Texas who is by the way by far the most popular politician in Texas, even more so than their president, and has been for a number of years. Whether or not she's interested in the job, of course, everyone always very shy about saying they're interested in the job and she indicates more of an interest n running for the governorship of Texas.

Susan Collins or for that matter Olympia Snowe, Maine being one of those states that has two women senators, either one of them might be a candidate, might be a strong candidate for vice president. Generally speaking particularly of a candidate or a nominee comes from a smaller state like Arizona, John McCain, they're looking for a vice presidential running mate from a larger state who might be able to bring them a larger cache of electoral votes should they win or should they be a team, and we'll see if they're looking you know, or seriously considering Maine to be that state.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Let's go with Chris. Chris is calling us from Columbus Ohio.

CHRIS (Caller): Gentlemen thank you for the time. While I had a question concerning the viability of maybe Hillary being - giving the presumptive nod of vice president, what the pros and the cons of that may be, and what you think the outcome may be? I'm not exactly sure what - he brings now in terms of a VP slot, but I like to get the early feedback for something.

ELVING: Well, this is why we carry these BlackBerrys around.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Visual aides for people here at the Newseum.

ELVING: Well and also because it gives us a chance to be able to report the news as it happens. Barack Obama has, pregnant pause, appointed a three person panel...

(Soundbite of laughter)

ELVING: To help him decide who will be the vice president under his - or on his ticket. The people who are going to be doing this include Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of John F. Kennedy, and also a guy by the name of Jim Johnson who has done a lot of the vice presidential vetting for presidential candidates in the past including John Kerry in 2004, also Walter Mondale back several years ago, and then the third person is Eric Holder, former U.S. attorney here in the District of Columbia.

So that's a very high powered, high profile team of people who will obviously be reaching out in the direction of many different constituencies in the Democratic Party. You know we started last night calling Barack Obama the presumptive Democratic nominee, and I guess some people have wags, have begun to say Hillary Clinton is the presumptuous vice presidential nominee.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ELVING: But this is a special set of circumstances. We have never had, since the primaries and caucuses begun, to be the means by which we chose the presidential nominees and that's really just been since 1972. This is the first time we've had a race so close, so very close, that really down to the last days there were scenarios that you could imagine by which either candidate might win. So given that special set of circumstances, and of course the special circumstances of the first African-American, the first woman to be this close to the Oval Office, there is a special compelling reason to consider Hillary Clinton to be the nominee to be vice president. So this could be that occasion when the dream ticket kind of writes itself and in the end it's really beyond the choice of even the two participants on that particular ticket, but then let's not forget, parenthetically, there's a third person in this person in this picture, Bill Clinton.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Chris.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: So we'll...

CHRIS: Thank you gentlemen.

CONAN: We'll elaborate on the compelling reasons that she might not be the nominee in the future. Ron Elving thanks very much for pinch hitting for Ken Rudin

ELVING: Thank you Neal.

CONAN: NPR's Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving with us here at the Newseum. This is Talk of the Nation and we'll hope that Mr. Rudin is back with us next week and we'll have him here on the Political Junkie. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News, I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

(Soundbite of music and applause)

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Obama Claims Nomination, Making History

Analysis

NPR Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving says Hillary Clinton's supporters are now likely to look for scapegoats to explain her loss. Who Did This to Hillary? he asks in his column, "Watching Washington."

New York Sen. Hillary Clinton at Baruch College in New York. i i

New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton addresses the crowd at her primary night event at Baruch College in New York, June 3, 2008. Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images
New York Sen. Hillary Clinton at Baruch College in New York.

New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton addresses the crowd at her primary night event at Baruch College in New York, June 3, 2008.

Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama secures enough delegates to win the Democratic Party's nomination. i i

Obama stands on stage with his wife, Michelle, at the Xcel Energy Center in St Paul. He made history by capturing the Democratic presidential nomination as the first black candidate. Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama secures enough delegates to win the Democratic Party's nomination.

Obama stands on stage with his wife, Michelle, at the Xcel Energy Center in St Paul. He made history by capturing the Democratic presidential nomination as the first black candidate.

Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
New York Sen. Hillary Clinton gets a hug from her husband. i i

Hillary Clinton gets a hug from her husband, former President Bill Clinton, during her speech at Baruch College. Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images
New York Sen. Hillary Clinton gets a hug from her husband.

Hillary Clinton gets a hug from her husband, former President Bill Clinton, during her speech at Baruch College.

Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama greets supporters. i i

Obama greets supporters at the Xcel Energy Center in St Paul. Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama greets supporters.

Obama greets supporters at the Xcel Energy Center in St Paul.

Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Sen. Barack Obama stood before a cheering crowd in a Minnesota convention hall Tuesday night, declaring himself the Democratic presidential nominee. His speech marked the end to what has been, at times, a bruising five-month-long campaign that history will remember as resulting in the first African-American to win a major party's nomination.

Obama called it "a defining moment for our nation."

A few hours earlier, his main rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton, refused to acknowledge Obama's clinching of the nomination during a speech to a boisterous crowd at Baruch College in New York City. Clinton said she was not ready to make any decisions about her campaign's future. At the same time, the New York senator said she was "committed to unifying our party."

Obama secured more than the 2,118 delegates needed to win the Democratic Party's nomination after two final primaries on Tuesday — in South Dakota and Montana — which resulted in a split decision. Clinton won South Dakota, where she and former President Bill Clinton had made several campaign appearances in the past week, while Obama captured Montana.

Obama, appearing on the same stage in St. Paul, Minn., where Arizona Sen. John McCain will accept the Republican Party's nomination in September, wasted no time pivoting to the general election that lies ahead. Sounding a theme that has already become familiar and will likely become more so in the weeks and months ahead, Obama said McCain "decided to stand with George Bush 95 percent of the time" in the Senate last year.

Eyes on General Election Battle

Obama charged that McCain "offers four more years of Bush economic policies that have failed to create well-paying jobs, or insure our workers, or help Americans afford the skyrocketing cost of college."

And turning to Iraq, Obama said, "It's not change when [McCain] promises to continue a policy in Iraq that asks everything of our brave men and women in uniform and nothing of Iraqi politicians — a policy where all we look for are reasons to stay in Iraq, while we spend billions of dollars a month on a war that isn't making the American people any safer."

The Obama campaign estimated some 17,000 supporters were inside the convention arena. They heard Obama give the kind of rousing speech that has become his trademark in the campaign.

"America, this is our moment," the 46-year-old Illinois senator and one-time community organizer said. "This is our time — our time to turn the page on the policies of the past."

McCain took advantage of the focus on the Democratic primaries to deliver a speech in New Orleans in which he criticized Obama for voting "to deny funds to the soldiers who have done a brilliant and brave job" in Iraq.

The 71-year-old Republican said Americans should be concerned about the judgment of a presidential candidate who has not traveled to Iraq, yet "says he's ready to talk, in person and without conditions, with tyrants from Havana to Pyongyang."

Standing before a green banner that said "a leader we can believe in," a play on Obama's campaign slogan "change we can believe in," McCain said, "The choice is between the right change and the wrong change, between going forward and going backward."

The Clinton Question

The biggest remaining question at the end of the lengthy primary season: What are Clinton's plans for going forward? During her speech Tuesday night, Clinton indicated she continues to believe that she would be the stronger candidate in the general election against McCain. But a parade of previously uncommitted superdelegates marched into the Obama camp Tuesday, closing off that option.

Obama lavished praise on his erstwhile rival during his speech in St. Paul, asserting that the Democratic Party and the nation "are better off because of her," and that he is "a better candidate for having had the honor to compete" with Clinton. One course of action would be an Obama-Clinton ticket, a possibility Clinton encouraged in a conference call with the New York congressional delegation on Tuesday, saying she was "open to it."

But the Obama campaign is thought to be cool to the notion of Clinton as a running mate, leaving unanswered the question the candidate herself posed Tuesday night: "What does Hillary want?"

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